The Drummer's Tale: A Novel by Chris Whitfield - Read Online
The Drummer's Tale
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Summary

An everyday story of innocence from 1972 about playing in a band and discovering the opposite sex.

"I'm Tom Kellaway, not quite old enough to vote, living a humdrum existence on the wrong side of the River Mersey in my parent’s terraced house of tangerine ceilings, farting upholstery, and dubious oil paintings of naked women. However, 1972 is shaping up to be a good year. I have formed a band with my friends, and I’m the drummer, or at least I will be when I get some drums. I have also met the beautiful Sofia, who might just be the girl of my dreams, although she is understandably more preoccupied with her rugged boyfriend who looks like a male model. The Liverpool Stadium and true love await. Unfortunately, knowing my luck, it is all destined to end in disappointment. Or is it?"

The Drummer's Tale is a funny and heartwarming story about the naivety of teenage ambition and the frustrations of unrequited love

Published: Chris Whitfield on

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The Drummer's Tale - Chris Whitfield

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*

1. The Liverpool Stadium - Part 1

This is the best night of my life. It is February 13th 1972, and the band is playing its final encore at the Liverpool Stadium. The aroma of smoking joss sticks and the noise from the assembled fans blend into a heady mix as I pound the drums, sweat trickling down both sides of my face. Ged is thrashing his Fender Strat as though exacting some form of retribution, and Julian’s left hand is journeying back and forth along the fret board of his bass at the speed of a bullet. I can see rows of battered wooden seats, bolted together in the shape of a horseshoe, full of guys with shoulder length hair seesawing from side to side and chicks waving their loose-limbed arms in a stoned attempt to conduct The Last Night of the Proms.

It is the final few seconds of the performance, and from the tubular lighting rig above our heads, a strobe illuminates the stage with an intensity to match the physical effort and passion on display. We stretch the decibel count to the limit, extracting the last drop of amplified noise from our equipment. I pummel the snare drum, tom toms and cymbals; Ged’s right hand is a blur as it moves up and down against the guitar strings; and Julian hits one high octave note on the bass with an alternating forefinger and middle finger. The aggregate sound is gargantuan and builds to a crescendo, climaxing with one final atomic explosion of noise. The people roar their approval, and we move to the front of the stage to line up arm-in-arm and bask in the adulation. This stadium has seen many outstanding occasions with its history of boxing stretching back to the 1930s, but this is arguably its zenith.

Ged takes hold of the microphone to acknowledge the fact.

Liverpool! You’ve been fucking brilliant. Peace, love and goodnight!’

Then my dad opens the door.

*

‘Good God, can you keep that bloody racket down?’

He scratches his crotch as though plucking a chicken and surveys the scene before him with the incredulity of a man who has just found his wife in bed with the milkman and the postman. I am holding two wooden rulers at one end of the settee; Ged is playing a table tennis bat like George Formby with his ukulele; and Julian has a yard brush protruding from between his legs. There is no Liverpool Stadium, no audience adulation, and no musical instruments. There are just the vivid fantasies of three young guys living out their dream as rock and roll stars. The imaginary gig has just taken place in the front room of my parent’s terraced house with its dog turd coloured vinyl three-piece suite, orange tweed cushions, and ceiling of polystyrene tiles, painted a gaudy shade of tangerine emulsion.

‘How goes it Ted lad?’ says Ged, over confident as ever.

My dad shakes his head and brushes back his Elvis quiff with his right hand, clearly irritated by the question. He turns to me and says, ‘What the hell are you playing at son?’

I adopt a defiant tone. ‘We’re forming a band.’

‘You’re forming a band?’

‘A group.’

‘What? A beat group... like The Searchers?’ The retort confirms his pop vocabulary to be about ten years out of date.

‘They’re called rock bands now Dad, Wishbone Ash, Mott The Hoople, Deep Purple... that sort of thing.’

‘Listen son, I don’t care if you think you're the next bloody Freddie & The Dreamers, just keep the noise down.’

Julian holds up a hand. ‘Please accept our profound apologies Mr. Kellaway. I’m afraid it’s another example of the over-exuberance of youth.’

My dad’s tone changes in an instant. He picks his nose and nervously tucks his string vest into the y-fronts visible above his slacks. ‘Fair enough Julian, I think I’ve, you know, made my point.’

With that, he slouches away, almost apologetically, leaving me to marvel again at the natural authority that our man with the broom exudes. Even my irascible father is putty in his hands. I have been a friend of Julian's since I was a young boy, when he and his family lived in the same street, and he has always been able to get the better of his elders. Most people are amazed to learn that his roots are as modest as my own, because to hear him speak, you would think he was ascended from the landed gentry.

We lay down our improvised instruments to plan a way forward. Ever since the Skiffle craze of the 1950s, it has been an established rite of passage for teenage lads to form some kind of musical ensemble. In common with many before us, it is a somewhat unrealistic goal, given none of us play an instrument and our singing is as untried as the latest inventions displayed each week by Raymond Baxter on Tomorrow’s World. However, we are at an age where ideals and dreams go hand in hand.

Today’s sofa arm will be tomorrow’s Ludwig drum kit; today’s table tennis bat will be tomorrow’s Gibson Les Paul; and today’s yard brush will be tomorrow’s Fender Precision Bass. As every idealist knows, today’s dream is tomorrow’s reality.

*

A month or so later, we are performing in the front room again, this time with a sprinkling of real equipment. The backdrop is a gigantic Fablon mural of a Scandinavian fjord that dominates the full width of the chimney breast. This scene looks out on to the faded portrait of 'The Crying Boy' that hangs on the opposite wall in the cheapest, plastic picture frame known to mankind. It may be my over-eager imagination, but I am sure that little lad with tears in his eyes is looking a bit more distressed than normal today. I have to confess that he is matching my own disposition, because I am about to air the frustration of playing the settee. It is all right for Ged, having found himself a battered old Watkins guitar and a nice little Vox AC30 amp advertised in the local newsagent’s window. And lucky old Julian has bought a Framus Bass and a Sound City mini stack. I have not moved on from our first night, other than exchanging my two rulers for a pair of proper drumsticks.

‘Hold it, hold it, this is no good.’

The other guys stop playing.

‘Beg to differ old man,’ says Julian. ‘This is sounding better every day.’

‘Come on Jules, what’s so clever about me bashing the edge of a couch? I can just imagine our first gig with me sitting on a chair at the back of the stage.’

‘OK then Tom Kellaway, let’s talk fucking cash.’ Ged characteristically gets straight to the point, as he flattens his thick straw-coloured hair either side of an uneven centre part.

There follows a brief discussion on the finances at my disposal, and things look as bleak as the Yorkshire Moors in February, until I remember my old Post Office Savings Account. My spirits soar like Concorde as I go in search of the passbook; only for them to plummet to earth like pigeon shit when I discover a balance of only five pounds. This will barely cover the cost of another set of drumsticks. Dejected and resigned to a career as the world’s foremost settee instrumentalist, I return to my band mates with the bad news.

‘There’s only £5 in the bloody account.’ I throw the passbook on to the sideboard in frustration.

‘You can’t get drums for a fucking fiver,’ says Ged.

‘Don't you think I know that?’

‘Relax Tom,’ says Julian, forefinger resting on the edge of his nose. ‘It will buy a fabulous armchair from Kent’s auctioneers.’

‘Very funny Jules.’

I am about to go into a minor sulk, when providence intervenes from an unexpected source. There is a commotion in the hall, where my mum has just been on the phone. She is gently sobbing, so I ask the others to stay quiet and listen at the Formica covered door. It appears that Great Aunt Edith has passed away at the age of ninety-seven.

I silently jump up and punch the air. ‘That’s bloody brilliant!’ I exclaim in a whisper.

I am not proud of my reaction, but I am being pragmatic, justifying the callousness on the grounds of Edith's reputation as both a dragon and a tight-arse. The going rate for her occasional gift of pocket money was a derisory tuppence. My mother was apparently getting the same when she was a girl.

‘What’s fucking brilliant?’ says Ged.

‘Old Aunt Edith has popped her clogs.’

‘And that’s good?’

‘Too right it’s good’

‘Because soft lad?’

‘Because Ged, as you would say...’ I pause for dramatic effect. ‘She is fucking loaded!’

‘You’re joking.’

‘As Buddha is my witness.’

The green plastic Buddha next to the tiger seashells on the mantelpiece maintains its usual neutral expression, always something of a surprise when you consider the garish orange and lime patterned wallpaper on view. I explain that my mum will inherit her aunt’s estate, which although not of aristocratic proportions, is still sizeable enough to make a difference. More to the point, I will now get the £200 share I overheard my parents discussing recently.

‘I do believe chaps,’ says Julian, putting his bass guitar back into its case, ‘that it’s time for a trip to Strathconas.’

*

Strathconas is the local store in the main shopping centre of Liscard for all things music, and I am elated that for the first time in my life, I am to be more than a window shopper. It may be just another day in Wallasey, the residential town on the Mersey forever in the shadow of its historic Liverpool neighbour, but not for me. It takes all my efforts to avoid skipping; such is the feeling of jubilation. After a visit to the post office to withdraw the fabled fiver from my savings account, we trek through the local park at a brisk pace.

I walk past the duck pond and the small boys fishing with their cane rods and green mesh nets, catching tiddlers to put in their jam jars; past the rose gardens with the old age pensioners sitting on park benches reflecting on times gone by; and past the Art College with its students carrying their latest canvas creations. Then it is up Liscard Road with the red bricks of Victoria Hospital on the left and the 1960s' concrete of the Co-op on the right, until we get to Liscard Roundabout with its paving perimeter, fenced in grassy inclines, and early spring daffodils. At this point, Strathconas comes into sight, the largest occupant in a parade of shops sitting beneath Coronation Buildings, a white sandstone structure seemingly inspired by the Croydon pre-war airport terminal.

We enter the shop, and Julian heads straight to the record department to groove to some Gentle Giant, while I follow Ged past the line of Gibson, Rickenbacker and Fender guitars towards the gleam of the percussion. Roddy the sales assistant knows us well. Thin as a rake, he is an easy-going, Scottish guy who tends to nod and shrug patiently as we dabble on instruments that we could not afford in a month of Sundays. However, even he senses a more purposeful air about us today.

In a second, I am in love. My eyes lock on to an Olympic by Premier kit with its sparkling red snare, bass drum, tom-tom, cymbal, hi-hat and, most importantly, affordable £195 price tag. It even has a cowbell. Roddy lets me have a go, though needless to say, I am not exactly Buddy Rich. If this were the furniture section at the local Co-operative Department Store, I would now be displaying a complete mastery of the armchair. No matter, my mind is made up.

‘I want to leave a £5 deposit,’ I say.

Roddy raises an eyebrow, an extreme reaction by his standards. ‘And may I ask how you’re going to pay the £190 balance?’

It is a reasonable question to put to a seventeen year old who is still in the sixth form at school and whose only regular income is £1 a week during the football season from cleaning the mud-drenched kits of a local team at the launderette... a weekly routine in which I am wordlessly castigated by the middle-aged women who look on in disgust at my washing machine with its agitated water, the colour of boiled diarrhoea.

‘I’ve inherited some cash.’

I inwardly praise the Lord for Great Aunt Edith. Roddy is dubious. However, the mild mannered salesman is willing to give me the benefit of the doubt, and the transaction is completed. Very soon, I will be a proper drummer. I head towards Julian to give him the good news, leaving Ged to admire a nice Telecaster.

The shop also sells domestic electrical equipment, and as I walk past the stereograms, twin tubs, and refrigerators, I have to do my utmost to avoid an over eager salesman who is trying to flog me the latest vacuum cleaner. It might float on its own cushion of air, but I do not find it difficult to resist.

The record section has a particular smell, a combination of polished wood and body odour. The gleaming oak cabinets housing the album sleeves are varnished to produce a shine that rivals the elbow patch of a geography teacher’s tweed jacket. The BO is courtesy of Harold who serves behind the counter. The fusion of his particular man-fragrance with the varnish is pungent to say the least. The only place of sanctity is within one of the three arched, soundproof listening booths positioned against the far wall of the department.

I approach the first. ‘Hey Jules, great news.’

Only it is not Julian in booth number one. A dainty, pretty girl is swaying to what sounds like Argent. She has a full head of chestnut-coloured hair held at the crown by a gold clip, from which strands of lighter hair have escaped to form a loose fringe, framing beautiful hazel eyes and long eyelashes. She looks Italian, not the norm in this town of pale faces and spotty complexions. She smiles and tilts her head towards me in an attempt to hear what I am saying. Unfortunately, my confidence with the opposite sex is a fragile beast, and my interpretation of her non-verbal line of questioning is on the lines of, ‘What the fuck are you looking at dickhead?’

Haplessly, I apologise. ‘Sorry, I, erm... thought you were my friend Julian, he’s erm... six foot, dark hair, erm... with a beard thing...’

‘I see,’ she smiles. ‘I must have forgotten to shave this morning.’

I flush and can only muster, ‘Yes, I suppose so.’ It is a pathetic response.

I move on to the next booth and am relieved to see my friend. I raise my thumbs to communicate the good news about the drum kit, but Julian politely indicates that he is in a Gentle Giant induced zone from which there has to be a gradual withdrawal. I move away to peruse the albums.

I remember that my mum asked me to look out for a Frank Sinatra LP for Dad’s birthday, and I scan the ‘STU’ alphabetical section where I select Sinatra Sings Cole Porter. I am waiting for Julian to appear so that I can borrow some cash, when I see the Italian girl emerge from booth one. She frowns at the record in my hand. I react as if holding red-hot molten lava from Mount Etna. The sleeve falls to the ground, and I randomly grasp another album cover, Shirley Bassey Live at The Talk of the Town! I curse my misfortune. Why could it not be Stephen Stills or Santana? Surely, the Tiger Bay songstress should be under B for Bassey, not S for Shirley. I curse the foul smelling Harold for his administrative ineptitude. My musical credibility shattered, I watch the pretty girl exit the store. I am left reeling from another blow to my delicate self-esteem with girls, but I can take solace from the new drum kit. Girls love a rock and roller, so perhaps things are going to change. It occurs to me, the sooner the better.

2. Talent Aplenty

A few weeks on, and I am scanning the kitchen cupboards in the habitually fruitless search for something decent to eat for breakfast. The best I can muster is a Morning Coffee biscuit, an easy winner over the other alternatives, a box of dried peas or a jar of my dad’s homemade pickled onions that look like spare parts from Dr Frankenstein’s stock room. However, I soon forget about this disappointment. There are mumblings coming from the back room. Through the serving hatch with its row of sporting golliwogs sitting on the edge, I see my dad slumped over the table, head in hands. My mum is holding a letter at arm’s length, trying to read it without the help of her glasses. She is as blind as a bat but refuses to wear her spectacles because she thinks they make her look like Billie Jean King. It transpires that Great Aunt Edith is at the heart of things again, and this time it is my dad’s turn to be distressed.

‘A bloody cat’s home for Christ’s sake. She didn’t even bloody like cats.'

‘Come on Ted, it’s only money.’ My mum is certainly taking the news better than the old man.

‘Only money, only money! Jesus! It should have been our money Edna, not that refuge for stray bloody moggies in Cross Lane!’

My mind is racing at this news, so much so that even the sight of a half-opened Heinz Toast Topper on the drainer has no impact. The dream is over. No inheritance means no drums. I realise in an instant that I will have to leave the band. Ged and Julian will understandably lose patience with a drummer who does not have a kit. It is like being the one member of The Magnificent Seven armed with a pan scourer instead of a gun.

I tiptoe into the hall to call Julian. Our household may have finally embraced the Alexander Graham Bell age by having a telephone fitted, but my dad is still paranoid about anyone using the damned thing. If he had his way, each call would last about ten seconds, just long enough to say hello, how are you, and goodbye. My voice is therefore church mouse quiet when I get through and inform my friend of this latest, unfortunate twist of fate.

‘Jules, Tom here... bad news about the drums I’m afraid.’

‘What’s that old man?’

‘Great Aunt Edith has left her estate to a cat’s home, so there’ll be no £200 for me.’

‘I see.’

‘I’m sorry pal, but you’ll just have to find yourself another drummer.’

Julian has been listening patiently and says, ‘If we do Tom, there’ll still be a place for you in the band.’

‘What playing, the spoons?’ I find it hard to hide my disappointment.

Julian does not answer. There is a brief pause, during which time I can hear his light breathing. He is thinking, plotting; his resourceful mind at work.

‘I have a bit of an idea,’ he says. ‘How do you fancy a pint with Paul McCartney this evening?’

*

I catch a glimpse of my reflection in the window of the Seacombe Ferry Hotel, a somewhat run down public house that overlooks the River Mersey in sight of the ferry boats and the ever-dwindling shipping traffic of the once great port. I look about twelve, in keeping with my schoolyard tag of ‘Shirley Temple’. My fair hair is shoulder length and frames a less than masculine face. I have had more than one person cross my path and ask if I was a boy or a girl, which is hardly the greatest confidence booster in the context of attracting the opposite sex. I am wearing a navy blue duffel coat with wooden toggles, not that different from the one I wore to primary school ten years ago. The only things missing are the plastic sandals from Woolworths and the ever present snotty nose. None of this helps to make me feel old enough to drink in here.

I hide behind the slightly taller Julian as we enter; keeping my eyes glued to the baseball boots just visible beyond the sway of my loons. We slice our way through the blanket of cigarette smoke and move across the threadbare Axminster carpet towards the bar, where we are served by a stereotypical, brassy Northern barmaid, her ample bosom bursting out of her white blouse, clearly a couple of sizes too small for her. She could easily be taken for the elder sister of the girl in the photograph of the salted peanuts advert behind the bar... albeit an elder sister who has smoked a packet of Capstan Full Strength a day since the age of five and has survived on three hours sleep per night followed by a breakfast of Tequila and grits.

‘And what can I get you gentlemen?’ Before Julian can answer, she looks at me and says, ‘Mind you, I can see what he wants.’ She wobbles her chest and says, ‘Catch me later love, and I’ll see what I can do.’

I blush as she laughs like Sid