Groups With Guitars

Didi Stewart

Clive Duffy cleared away the empty glasses and mopped the bar. It was almost closing time. Soon he’d be popping down to Lime Street and meeting the lads for a pint or two. They’d have a game of darts, a few laughs. Then it’d be home to Milly for the usual kippers-on-toast, slippers-before-the-telly Sunday night.

Clive gave the last-round bell a resounding ring. “Time, gentlemen,” he called. Force of habit; with the Liverpool University students on holiday, the pub was nearly empty. Today’s clientele consisted of a Kirkby whore, a trio of Woolton aunties, and a middle-aged geezer dawdling in the loo.

“Time,” he said, more loudly. A wintry gust rattled the leaded windows, blew in through the cracks. Frozen rain spattered against the glass. Clive sighed. It’d be a good job hustling this lot outside by four, and there was still the cleaning up to do. The lads would have a bit of a wait.

The loo-straggler returned and took a place at the bar just as Clive was closing the register. “Sorry, mate. Last orders were ten minutes ago.”

The man’s boyish smile contrasted with his tweedy, schoolmasterish appearance.  “No problem, barman,” he said. “Just here for a chat.”

So that’s what the poor sod wanted, a little therapy-on-the-cheap. Problems at home, or trouble at work-if he was lucky enough to have work. In Liverpool, joblessness was rampant. With the death of heavy industry in the North, and massive cuts in the workforce, the old seaport had become a ghost town of shuttered shops, torched buildings, and boarded-up manufacturing plants. Stupid bloody Thatcher and her politics of selfishness: benefiting the greedy at the expense of the needy, destroying livelihoods with her brutal economic reforms. The 1980’s had been the worst decade on record. Good thing they were finally coming to a close.

The stranger wasn’t giving up. “Don’t recognize me, do you, Duff?”

Duff. It had been Clive’s nickname back in the Liverpool Institute days. No one had called him that for years. He studied the man but couldn’t place the face. “Local lad?”

“From Allerton. Your sister used to go with me brother Michael.”

“Sweet Jesus. Now I remember.”

Paul, that was his name. He and Clive had been in classes together back at the Institute, shared some of the same school chums. Like Clive, he’d be pushing fifty now.

“Welcome home, son,” Clive said, positioning his hands over the pumps. “What are you having?”

“Don’t bother, if you’re closing.”

“No trouble. Don’t get celebrities in here every day, do we?”

Paul rolled his eyes. “Well, then. Make it a lager and lime, and pour one for yourself.”

Clive served up two foamy pints, dashed liberally with limeade. “Haven’t seen you in ages,” he said. “Revisiting the old stomping grounds?”

“Not by choice. Me dad died last week. I came back to sort out the house.”

Paul tore the wrapper off a packet of ciggies. Clive got a closer look at his face as he leaned forward to give him a light. It was hard seeing Paul like this-gray-haired and worry-lined, running to fat. Still, there was that smile. When he smiled the years fell away, and Clive saw Paul as he’d been: a pretty boy in a white sport coat and tight black drainies, his hair greased up in a Tony Curtis pompadour, strumming Elvis tunes on the back of a street fair lorry. ‘Paulie’ the birds had called him, screaming his name over the din of noontime club sessions, clawing and kicking their way to the front rows to get his attention.

That was back in the early 60’s, when rock ‘n’ roll still had a grip on Britain’s imagination. Bands were everywhere, rehearsing in mildewed basements and playing neighborhood dances, but Paul’s combo was a cut above the rest. They’d gone from amateur dates to bigger venues like Litherland Town Hall, and had even traveled to the Continent. Then there’d been the winning of the Mersey Beat poll, for which Clive could take partial credit. He and  Milly must have mailed in fifty votes between them.

“That group of yours, what was it called? Used to see you at the Cavern on me lunch break.”

“Ancient history, Duff.”

“Come on. You were good.”

“Lots of others around, doing the same thing.”

But Paul’s band had something special. You felt it at the Cavern, when they’d been at their height: four leather-jacketed Teddy Boys larking about on a shoe box stage, blasting out “Long Tall Sally” between mouthfuls of beans and chips. Clive still recalled those deafening drumbeats, the mobs of shrieking fans, the unbearable humidity that soaked you to the skivvies. It was a magic he’d never known before and wouldn’t experience again: raw, pure, raving rock ‘n’ roll, a big, beautiful tidal wave of sound that swept you away without ever pulling you under.

Paul and his mates had been Liverpool’s likely lads, poised on the brink of success. Then came the near misses, the mounting rejections-three years of pushing and struggling, waiting for the big break that never arrived.

Clive drew them both a second lager. “You keep in touch with the others?”

“I saw George a few days ago. He has a house in Upton Green. Works as an electrician. Or used to, before Mrs. Thatcher pulled the plug on him. Been on the dole six months now.”

“What about that drummer, the one with the enormous hooter? Milly was mad for ‘im.”

“Emigrated to the States. I still get the occasional card.”

Smart lad, fleeing Merseyside before the 80’s boom went bust. Clive wished he’d had that kind of foresight. “That Lennon fellow made something of himself.”

“Saw one of his exhibits last time I was in London. He’s still doing those daft cartoons his auntie used to toss in the dustbin. You wouldn’t believe the prices they’re fetching.”

Paul grinned. “I found some of the songs we wrote, going through things at me dad’s. Weren’t half bad.”

The neon jukebox caught Paul’s eye. He wandered over to it and scanned the selections. “Bloody Tremeloes. I can’t believe they’re still around. They were the group Decca signed, you know? Instead of us.”

The lager was bringing it out of him. “Decca had this junior executive, Mike Smith. He dug us. Brought us to London to cut a few demos. We hung in there for months, waiting to hear. Finally his boss rings our manager. ‘Groups with guitars are on the way out’, he says. ‘Stick to selling records in Liverpool, Mr. Epstein’.”

He slipped a few coins into the machine and punched some buttons. The wailing plea of the Marvelettes exploded from the speakers: “Wait! Woh yes, wait a minute Mr. Postman…”

“Tamla-Motown was cool. The surf thing was good while it lasted. But all you hear these days is that teen idol shit. Same crap I hated thirty years ago.” Paul bolted the last of his drink. “Sodding industry fatcats with their profit margins and tried-and-true formulas. Good thing I quit the business when I did.”

“Maybe you should have stuck it out a bit longer.”

“I dunno. How many times can you play Hamburg?” There was a glint of nostalgia in those aging puppy-dog eyes, a wistful sense of what might have been. “Knocked me for six when the band split up, but I haven’t done too bad for meself. Went to teacher-training college. Got a job on staff. Made me dad happy, at least.”

It was time to close. Clive shooed out the remaining customers, then saw Paul to the door.

“The lads would love to see you,” he said. “Feel like tagging along?”

“Thanks, but I’m late as it is. Don’t want to keep the missus waiting.”

“Well, then. Good talking to you.”

“Yeah. Cheers.”

Paul walked off. A thought occurred to Clive, and he called after him. “That other drummer, the one you sacked. Pete Best. He still comes around from time to time.”

“I felt pretty guilty about that. But it’s not like he missed out on anything, eh?”

With a final wave, Paul rounded the corner and disappeared.

Clive whistled to himself as he tidied up. Those were great times, the early 60’s. Crackling with energy, bursting with promise. For a while, it had seemed as if anything was possible-that humble, workaday Liverpool could suddenly reach beyond its inner-city slums and crumbling docklands and capture the world’s attention. The old girl had deserved better. It would have been nice to be known for something more than telly comedians, soccer brawls, and Toxteth street riots.

Clive locked the doors and zipped his jacket against the evening chill. Ah well, he thought.

Life’s a bitch, innit?

Didi Stewart is Assistant Professor of Voice.



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