A brief novel about life, friendship, music and faith.
Seven old friends are drawn together on the day the news breaks about David Bowie’s death. Various conversations take place around music, life, faith, religion, friendship and the past.
An extract from the book
Dirges in the Dark - A.K.A. - The Day the Music Died
o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o
He stands in front of the door. That door again. Towering above him like the Empire State Building, or the Tower of London, or something far more ominous. There’s a scraping sound beyond it. The feet of monsters, dragging their scaly heels as they pace and wait to devour him. He can’t see the darkness beyond the thick door but he knows it’s there. He can’t go in. He’s too small. Too weak. Yet for some reason his hand still reaches for the handle, takes hold, begins to turn it. The scraping footsteps grow louder, accompanied now by a low snarling, like the dark threatening sound of a slavering, teeth-bared dog, preparing to pounce and tear flesh. The door swings wide, the hinges screaming. The orange eyes of a creature stare back at him, there’s a flash of fire, a groaning and grinding and a snapping of jaws. The creature leaps for him. And he wakes. No longer small. Older again. And not standing at the foot of those stairs.
‘Some breaking news just in... it’s been confirmed that the singer and musician David Bowie has died this morning at the age of 69. In a career spanning several decades he had a profound influence on the world of music, culture and fashion. He’ll be missed.’
Winters in England can be bleak. But for some folk that’s just fine. It feeds the loneliness in their soul.
Kerouac’s parents loved the bleakness of winter. They also wanted to be beat poets, but their poetry was not so good. Kerouac’s dad could sketch a little, but was never likely to make a masterpiece. And they weren’t adventurous on-the-roadsters. They were more dreamers-who-liked-staying-homesters. With an ever-open-door for other soulful folks. So instead of hitting the highway, Mr & Mrs Jones read about the beat generation. And they called their only child Kerouac, after Jack.
One day years later, six months after both his parents had been killed in a road accident, Kerouac ventured back to the family home to sort the place out. The place was an old rambling four up, four middle, four down sort of place, detached and lurching alone in a field off a B road. A tree in the garden held the old sturdy swing that he had played on as a child, and the pond near to it was home to all manner of insects, amphibious life, and low grade contagious diseases. His parents had not been the tidiest of people, not the kind who easily threw things away or sent them to charity outlets. So the place was full of stuff. Old newspapers and magazines, strange and wonderful holiday mementoes, shoes and items of clothing that had been worn by various people at various times, and mountains of rock’n’roll trivia. And it was while scaling the heights of this accrual that Kerouac came across a most intriguing letter. It contained no beat poetry, no allusions to a life on the road. It was a handwritten note from his father. Hastily scrawled. In an envelope where only half the seal had been licked and pressed down. So it wasn’t hard to open. Kerouac, I have a feeling it’s time you checked the attic. If I’m here we’ll do it together, if not, bundle up your courage and go it alone, you won’t regret the quest, Dad. That was it. That was all it said. Hardly a letter at all really. Kerouac stared at it for a while. His spine tingled and he shivered as if the voice was from his own grave, not his father’s. He’d never been in the attic. Not once. His father kept it locked and told him beat poet kind of tales about the wonders and woes that lurked in the dark up there. There was a key in the envelope with the note.
He was twirling it on the index finger of his right hand when the phone rang. The thing about phones, Kerouac thought as he reached for the ancient black receiver, was that they always sounded the same, same tone, same ring, same clatter, same music, whatever the message. Good news or bad, jolly or jarring, inconsequential or world-shattering, the sound was still the same. You couldn’t second-guess them. Not until you answered the call.
‘Jack. It’s Tuesday. Have you heard?
She always called him Jack. A kind of affectionate word association.
‘Heard what?’ he asked.
‘The news,’ she said, her voice somewhere between a gasp and a whisper.
‘It’s well, you know… Bowie...’ was there a catch in her voice? ‘you know, Bowie... Bowie...’
‘Tuesday you always say it wrong, his name is Bowie. Not Bowie.’
‘Not now. Not now, Jack.’
‘His name. His name isn’t Bowie or Bowie. You’ve not… you’ve not heard, Jack?’
Kerouac scratched his head and grimaced, though the moves were wasted on Tuesday. ‘Heard what?’ he said.
‘He’s… not… going…’ She never was great at getting messages across.
‘Not going? Where? Mars?’
‘Don’t joke, Jack. Please don’t joke, whatever you do, don’t joke. Turn on your TV.’
‘There is no TV.’
‘Is that a joke? Your radio then.’
‘Well I guess there’s one here somewhere.’
‘Jack, where are you?’
‘The old man’s derelict pile. You should know – you just called me on the number here.’ No response, so he went on. ‘I thought I’d sort the place. It’s been long enough.’
‘Can I come over? Please? Can I? I need to. Can I?’
‘Well yes, I guess so. But what’s this about Bowie? … Tuesday? Tuesday?’
Silence. She’d gone.
He looked at his phone in the way that so many of us do when the line dies unexpectedly, as if there’ll be some indication on the screen of what was going to be said that hadn’t made it down the line.
He put it down, but not for long. It rang again.
‘It’s Dean-O. Have you heard?’
‘I’m coming over.’
‘Are you at home?’ Dean-O barked.
‘No. What’s wrong with everyone? You dialled the number. I’m at the folk’s old place.’
‘But that’s miles away. It’ll take forever.’
‘It’ll just have to be, put on the Young Americans.’
‘Because it’s the best thing Bowie ever did.’
‘At least you say it the right way.’
‘Bowie. Tuesday says Bowie.’
‘Have you spoken to her?’
‘Yes, she’s on her way over too.’
‘Oh great! Did you have to invite her?’
‘I didn’t invite her. Dean-O, what’s this news?’
‘See you later. Don’t forget, put on the Young Americans.’
The line went dead again.
Kerouac glanced about. He couldn’t see a radio, but he’d spotted his dad’s old record player when he had been sorting earlier.
Three minutes later.
‘I shaved my head. It’s funny. I look a lot smaller.’
She sounded a lot smaller too.
‘Maggie? Is that you?’
‘It seemed appropriate. And I guess looking smaller is appropriate. For today. The world is smaller, isn’t it? We’re all a bit smaller. So it’s appropriate.’
‘Maggie, what are you talking about?’
‘Is that Young Americans? Are you playing Young Americans?’
‘Yea, Dean-O told me I should put it on.’
‘No! You should play Boys Keep Swinging, or Sound and Vision. Yea, Sound and Vision. I was born to that you know. It’s appropriate. Put it on.’
‘I’ve no idea if my dad had Sound and Vision. Which album is it on?’
‘Low. Named after that producer. The punk guy.’
She sighed before answering. ‘How could it be Malcolm McLaren if it’s called Low? It would be called McLaren if it was named after Malcolm McLaren. Kez, are you at your dad’s? He’s dead isn’t he?’
‘And mum, yes.’
‘Strange on a day like today.’
‘That. You being there. Appropriate I suppose. Like my hair. Or my no-hair. I feel smaller. It makes me look terrified too. My eyes are too big. Young Americans sounds too happy, too full of life. Although...’
‘Maggie? Are you still there?’
He was about to look at the phone again when she spoke.
‘There! That line!’
‘What line?’ he asked.
‘That Beatles’ line. “I heard the news today, oh boy!” So perfect. So appropriate.’
‘Maggie? What now?’
Nothing as it turned out. She’d gone. To get a hat perhaps, to make her feel a little bigger again. And with a hat she could decide how big she wanted to be. A skull cap would barely add a few millimetres, where as a top hat, or a beefeater... she could end up looking like the Empire State Building. Young Americans was coming to an end. Kerouac went over to the box, the one he’d found stuffed with his father’s old collection. Did he have Low? He flicked past Revolver and Tapestry, Sticky Fingers and All Mod Cons, Rumours and My Generation. There they were, the likes of Hunky Dory, Diamond Dogs and Aladdin Sane. He’d always thought Bowie, and it was definitely pronounced Bowie, not Bowie, chose the most extraordinary names for his long players. Exotic, mysterious, dream-casting kind of names. Even before he’d heard a single one his father had recited some of the titles and he’d been captivated, knew they had to be unique, wondrous, other-worldly things. David didn’t merely do a cover versions album, oh no, he did something called Pin Ups. Not just a couple of greatest hits collections, but Changes One and Changes Two. And of course Ziggy Stardust, and not only Ziggy Stardust, though that was magical enough, but The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. What did they look like? Arachnids from a whole other planet. What size were they? How long were their legs? How many did they possess? And what did their bite do to you? There it was, Low. Kerouac stared at the track listing. Speed of Life. Breaking Glass. Always Crashing in the Same Car. Something about the titles made him shudder. Was this the news? The reason for the calls? Some kind of accident? As he took off Young Americans and replaced the black vinyl with Low the phone rang again. He leant low and blew on the plastic little grooves, watched the dust fly like tiny fragments of broken glass, then lowered the needle on the dying bars of What in the World. Seconds later Sound and Vision kicked in as he reached for the phone.
‘Sound and Vision? Why you playing that?’ The voice was almost a snarl.
Kerouac sighed. Everyone was telling him what to do today.
‘Maggie likes it.’
‘Maggie? She’s not with you is she?’
‘No. She thought it would be appropriate.’
‘Appropriate? On a day like today? How? She’s mad. It’s too upbeat. Too celebratory. Turn it off. Now!’
‘Mustang,’ he sighed, ‘what are you calling for?’
‘How can you ask that on a day like today? How can you?’
He sounded angry. It wasn’t unusual for Mustang.
‘It couldn’t have been much worse if she suggested Let’s Dance. Airhead. What does she know about Bowie anyway?’
‘Mustang, it’s Bowie, not Bowie. You should know that.’
‘I do know that, imbecile, but not today. Today it’s Bowie, because it’s all wrong. The world is wrong, Turned up and wrung out. Skinned and put through the ringer. Shredded. Everything’s shredded and lost. So it’s Bowie not Bowie.’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘It’s still playing, I can hear it. Put on Ashes to Ashes.
‘Ashes to Ashes?’
‘Yes! It’s perfect. Epic, mournful, tortured, full of regret. Put it on! Now!’
Kerouac sighed and put down the phone. He hoped that it would take him so long to find Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) that Mustang would be long gone. Eventually the words filled the room. That haunting voice, asking about remembering that guy from such an early song.
‘Happy?’ Kerouac said, knowing that Mustang would not be.
Silence. Maybe Mustang had given up and gone.
‘Where are you?’ Mustang barked.
For a moment Kerouac was tempted say, ‘At home.’
‘At my old man’s place.’
The words just spilled out, unstoppable like lemmings over that cliff-edge.
‘Hmm. Good. That’s good.’
‘Shut up, I’m listening.’
Ashes to Ashes played on.
‘Time and time again I promise myself I’ll be clean tonight,’ Mustang muttered. ‘So true,’ he sighed, ‘so true… so true…’
Kerouac was so tempted to tell him those weren’t the exact lyrics, but he held back. Bit his lip and said nothing. And so there was more silence. Only this time Mustang wasn’t just listening. This time he’d gone. Kerouac found out three minutes later halfway through Fashion when he dared speak again. There was no reply.
Kerouac made himself a Ryvita cracker loaded with peanut butter. Funny that. He had never liked peanut butter. But his mother did, and being back in the old kitchen he suddenly got a taste for it. The stuff was dangerously out of date but he didn’t care. Biting into that stale Ryvita cracker (she always loved those too) piled high with brown goo was like giving her a hug. Or being hugged by her, which was more to the point. He was starting to get ideas from all these calls, and he didn’t like them. Kept pushing them back like the contents of an overfull cupboard, piled precariously high. He had to keep elbowing the ideas back into the dark and leaning on the door to stop it opening. The phone rang again. He figured it would be Duke. He figured right.
‘I was his roadie,’ said the deeply gravelled voice. Like Lee Marvin with a sore throat.
‘When, Duke? When were you?’
‘I’ve told you, a million times, the Ziggy Stardust days.’
‘You’re too young Duke, you’d have been hauling amps and downing beer in your nappies.’
‘Hardly. I’ve got a good ten years on you my friend. Born in ’60, at the kick-off of that great rock’n’roll decade.’
‘You’d still have been barely out of shorts.’
‘Oh well, maybe it was the Glass Spider tour.’
‘There’s a big difference, Duke. Anyway, why all this Bowie talk.’
‘You know why Kez, don’t fool me.’
A long silence. There often was with Duke.
‘Something’s happened hasn’t it?’ Kerouac said.
‘Maybe it was the Absolute Beginners tour,’ Duke rumbled on the other end of the line.
‘That was a film soundtrack, Duke.’
‘Duke, I’d better go, I have things to do.’
‘On a day like today?’
‘Yes, on a day like today.’
‘I’ll be round.’
‘No you won’t, I’m not home.’
‘You’re at the old place aren’t you? Makes sense. The attic I s’pose. Have you been playing the old songs?’
‘I’ve got to go, Duke, See you sometime.’
The gravelly voice started to reply then subsided. The line went silent.
Kerouac hung up. Not for long. He’d barely taken another bite of Ryvita when his phone rang again, playing the opening bars of Under Pressure. He’d only added it the day before. It was Tuesday.
‘I always thought...’ she stopped and Kerouac waited.
‘Where are you?’ he asked, his voice hushed.
‘Just stopped for a coffee. Need one. I needed a coffee. I’d always imagined I might... well...’
‘Yes, silly isn’t it?’
Kerouac was speechless. Silly was not the word bouncing off the walls of his mind right then.
‘Propose?’ he said again, hoping it might make things better.
‘Yes, daft isn’t it?’
First silly, now daft. Still nowhere near the words fighting each other in his mind. He felt a bead of sweat meandering on his forehead.
‘To Modern Love, you know,’ she went on. ‘Seemed to make sense. But now... now I don’t know what it means.’
Kerouac began to see a shaft of light. Just a small one.
‘You mean, propose... in... general?’
He hardly dared pose the question, in case it established his fear. There was a nervous laugh on the other end of the phone.
‘Oh yes, silly, propose in general, not to... not to... anyone in particular. Or right at this moment. Just had always...’ a pause, ‘imagined it. In general. You know. I’d better go, coffee’s all finished and it’s going cold. Bye Jack.’
How could her coffee be finished and going cold?
The phone again.
A mild voice with a slight edge to it.
‘Krisco? Is that you?’
‘Course it’s me Kez. What’s up?’
‘Krisco why are you calling me today?’
‘Oh no reason, just thought you might need a friend.’
‘You mean you don’t need a friend?’
Kerouac had only one real friend. He had always been a one friend kind of guy. Dean-O (no one knew what the O stood for, it had just always been there, hanging on for dear life to the end of that hyphen) ran a record store. Dean-O’s Rock-n-roll Emporium it was called. The name hung across the shop front in neon letters that sputtered and fizzed and came and went when switched on to attract customers. It didn’t work too well, and had more effect as an effective fly killer, toasting any buzzing insects that came too near it. Though Dean-O claimed to be a rock-n-roll impresario, he embraced any pop music that came his way, and there was as much Glam Rock and seventies disco in the store as there was Elvis and Roy Orbison. Dean-O and Kerouac had been friends since school days, both of them lurking on the edge of classroom normality like two sore thumbs. So it was inevitable they would team up. And team Dean-O-Kerouac had gone the distance. So thirty years later they were still a team, still lurking on the edge of normality. Still looking for a side door into life and a way to fit in. The customers who did visit Dean-O’s Emporium liked his weirdness. It may have left him feeling awkward and lonely but to them it was an other-worldliness. He was from planet old-music and could recount mythical tales about Ol’ Blue Eyes, Tommy Steele, The Doolies and Captain Beakie. It was unlikely that any were true, but that was part of the wonder. Buy an old 45 from Dean-O and you got a free tale thrown in about Jeff Lynne, 6 cans of spaghetti hoops, Suzi Quatro and a giant marrow. For Dean-O it was a way of connecting with his people. A way of feeling part of his world. If Kerouac needed a friend today, then the weird and lonely Dean-O was bound to be enough.
‘No Krisco, I’m fine. I have more than enough friends coming over thanks.’
‘Ah, snuck out of the woodwork have they?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Only that I never pretended, Kez.’
‘You know, Mr Bowie.’
‘It’s Mr Bowie. Not Mr Bowie.’
‘Whatever, it meant nothing to me. Couldn’t see what the fuss was about. Make-up and Mars and Ziggy Starman and Space Oddjob. What was the point? What was it all about?’
‘Growing up, and angst, and life, and beating the system... and being ourselves. Being honest, Krisco.’
‘Ha!’ Krisco did his laugh. It shot out of him like a bullet, slaying whatever was in its path.
‘Ha!’ he said again. ‘Honesty? You’re kidding me. It was just a mock’n’roll bandwagon. A rusty sharabang, powered by a few leftover remnants from Lennon and McCartney’s musical Rolls Royce jet engine. Bolan, Ferry and Bowie were amateurs, pretenders who watched the likes of Sergeant Pepper roll past, then tagged onto the crowd and made a novice kind of noise as they did their best to keep in step.’
‘Krisco, you’ve rehearsed that speech and delivered it before. We’ve had this conversation a million times. And I still can’t untangle your mixed metaphors.’
‘Nothing betters the Beatles mate. Everything else is playing catch up. Music died on 10th April 1970.’
‘I thought Lennon quit in September ’69,’ said Kerouac.
‘Ha! That was just a warning salvo. The calm before the storm.’
‘What’s that mean?’
‘If you don’t know I can’t teach it to you.’
‘Krisco, I’m busy.’
‘I bet you are on a day like today.’
‘See you, Krisco.’
For the first time that day Kerouac ended a call.
The bell rang. It was a change from the phone and Under Pressure. The sound clattered down the hall and up the stairwell. Kerouac was standing on the top landing looking up the short flight of steps to the attic. He was deep in thought and so the bell clattered three times before he realised what was going on...