Ask either Byron or Bukowski to write about Keith Moon's antics at the Beverley-Wilshire in Los Angeles and you are left with a skeleton. But listen to Bukowski or Cyrano describe over a pint of wallop exactly what Moon got up to and you will be in surreal heaven.
And so, I have discovered that what keeps a story alive, fresh in the mind and often growing legs (as all the best stories do!) is the live words, the live mouth. Sometimes a kitchen, a drawing room even a car journey, but best of all, a quiet long bar. A small crowded bar - no good. No heart, no soul, too many distractions. No length, no breadth, no room to dream and fantasise about beautiful people like Moon, Bukowski and Byron. But a long bar dressed by a long row of empty sunlit seats amounts to a life theatre, a place where a story can spin. I am in love with such places and seek them out all the time.
I sit, or I have sat, for many an hour on my own thinking about the most ridiculous, absurd, funniest, absolutely cracked person I have ever met. I drink as I think about him, and I think more and more about him and why we lost him and that makes me drink even more. And I try to pace my drink but I am unable to pace as I should, and consequently I speed up a little and I become gently sloshed and I'm not aware of this. I go into the bathroom and pee. The toilet is polluted by the dank smell of a stale extractor fan. Then I look at the Guinness engraved mirror and see whom I expect to see. In those few seconds a thought from somewhere occurs in my head that maybe it's time to go back to the hotel now and slow down. And like most people with a drink problem, that thought becomes an intrusion in the mainstream of better thought presently resident in my brain. It's probably the most sensible suggestion all day and yet I will dismiss it as plain dumb.
So I'm getting sloshed and I return to my seat at the bar. But how could I be sloshed when I'm walking, talking - talking even more eloquently than when I came in. I'm in an ebullient mood here as I bounce off the barman or barmaid who has been keeping me company for the past two hours. With some people it's their breath, others a certain glaze in the eye, even others balance, some slurred speech, another symptom too which is a dead give-away is a fucked-up pattern of logic. I possess none of these qualities. I'm unique, you see, just like a lot of my contemporaries, I'm sober as a judge even when I'm out of my fucking brain.
That's the problem with me most times. I'm the world's happiest drunk. I kiss people's cheeks, I have kissed men's lips, I have clipped people's chins with a friendly fist, I shake hands with strangers. I never fight, I never touch shorts, never become aggressive. When I'm drunk I see good in everyone and self doubt in myself. I mellow down to a confession of stuff I really don't need to bother with. I strip myself bare of... well, for a start, dignity. Strip myself of any little bit of noteworthy accomplishment - maybe because I sense the listener is going to slap me on the back and say: "No you're not. You're brilliant. Write a book, my friend." Well, how's this for starters?
The Journeyman's Rest on West 35th possesses such a lengthy counter I have referred to, serviced by the already described row of high wooden stool-chairs. They're rich in cedar wood and the sun fair glistens upon their pronounced curvature. After that it stretches the length of the good counter. Sometimes I like to call it the dream-weaving table. The guy behind the bar told me he was from County Monaghan in northern Ireland. He was young, big-faced, 195 pounds, with a shock of red hair tied into a deceptive Ponytail and in a way couldn't have been mistaken for anyone other than an over-weight Irishman. His accent 'sang' and his vocabulary was home. He had been in New York these part four years and had seen everything. If he hadn't seen it, he assured me with a good Monaghan wink, the Irish grapevine had kept him informed. Perhaps he was glad to have someone to talk to in me.
He had an Irish guy called Pierce Turner on the tape deck whose music certainly reminded one of Celtic origin. He kept him low, suiting the quiet ambience of the extended bar. Did he play himself? I wanted to know. Usually' one of my opening questions since I am obsessed with music.
"Oh yes, indeed. Pipes."
"Jesus, pipes?" I replied "You play pipes?" He looked at me a little taken aback by my sudden cardiac over pipes.
"You play, yourself?" he enquired.
A reasonable question since I had just displayed a bout of ape shit by the mere mention of pipes. "Play? Ah no. But I've just written a, story about a character who plays uileann pipes. I waited for him to be sent into a similar bout of ape shit having been imparted with this piece of information.
"Short story," I said.
"Oh really." His words tailed off as he walked away to tend a glass dispenser at the other end of the bar. I waited for his return to see what his reaction might be. After all he played them and I had just written about them. We could travel with this.
He carried his weight back down the bar... "So, you 'em, you write about musical instruments?"
"No, not really. I write sort of stories that come into my head and usually there's a musical content to what I write about."
"So, you're a writer," his voice was only a couple of steps from awe.
"No. I actually work for the post office. I'm a postman."
"A postman? So you don't write for a living?"
"I work full time as a postman and write short stories in my spare time." At last he had the drill.
"Spare time? Make much money? I mean, have you ever been published?"
"Oh Yeah. I've been published but only in a small way. I can get up to seventy pounds for a good short story - but I'm a long way from appearing on a shelf.
He refilled my empty glass and I drew a five dollar bill from my, pocket. He smiled, shook his red head and said, "That's on the house." Now we're travelling, I thought. Now we're sucking diesel.
I watched him do odd jobs around the bar and wondered what it must have been like for him in County Monaghan. Pierce Turner was singing about how he couldn't get a drink on a Sunday night back home because of the licensing laws. I listened to what he was saying and gently cradled the free pint in my hand. How did 'red hair' get to learn uileann pipes, I wondered, and what was his future? Did he intend on staying in New York? As I drank and whiled away the time, I remained his only customer except for a couple who had taken a table at the far end. He tended their order and I supped in peace. When he returned, I offered him a drink. He shook his head, no thanks.
I looked at the bloat of Iggy Pop on his X-large sweat shirt. He told me how he was just biding time with bar work. Oh yeh? He had a degree in computer science and went on to explain to me the complexities of his many options. Before long, I had lost the thread of exactly why he wasn't doing it right now. But he was a likeable man, easily impressed and of an innocent nature. He had learned to play uileann pipes when he was a "wee lad" of eleven, maybe twelve. Like many northern folk he came from a musical family. Hs parents played different instruments and so did his brothers and sisters.
The last time he had played uileann pipes, he told me, had been years before on a Saturday night at home in Monaghan, a going-away bash for a family friend. The memory of the occasion made his eyes sparkle. I was halfway through asking him something about it when he leaned across the counters an expression of seriousness growing on his face, to endorse what he was saying as he slapped the counter with a cloth in his hand. It was the very same day he assured me that he bought the 'Boy' album.
I looked at him, amused and surprised - 'Boy'. The two events seemed to represent to him a collective moment of decision. It seemed strange that either event: had not been eclipsed by other moments like, for instance the day he achieved his degree, or the day he arrived in New York. I felt a smile creep on my face by the fact it had been a totally musical experience that seemed to matter to him most. So, I wondered how did he equate uileann pipes with what he was listening to now - and wearing? He didn't. The pipes represented a time in his life when he was aching to leave Monaghan. 'Boy' had broken the mould and allowed him to step outside his family's musical background.
He had dreamed of coming to New York. He had even met U2. I looked at him and smiled. So, I wanted to know how had that come about? Well, he was on his own behind the counter one day ---- "Just like we are now," he added ---- when a guy walked in sat down and ordered a pint. They got talking, one thing led to another and eventually he discovered the guy was working with the band. "I really thought he was bullshitting me. So I'm a bit of an expert when it comes to U2, so I asked him a few good questions on the band and he was bang on with every one of them. I couldn't believe it, y'know. Jesus, U2's sound engineer in here. He said held call back the next day with a couple of tickets and I thought 'Oh sure.' How many times have I heard that before? The next day, this guy Joe, poked his head around the door and handed me two backstage passes in an envelope. I'd have bought him drink all day. Only he couldn't stay. After the gig I went backstage and there's me and the girlfriend standing four feet from Bono and the others." He walked away towards the glass dispenser and said over his shoulder, "Mighty. Just mighty."
When he came back he offered me another drink. I declined. He watched me prepare to leave. "So when d'you go home?" he wanted to know.
"I go back on Saturday, fly back Saturday."
Back to work on Monday, I suppose. Back to Dublin?"
"Dublin? Who said I'm from Dublin?" I enquired, aware of the mischief ahead.
"Didn't you say you were from Dublin?" he looked slightly puzzled.
"No, I didn't. I'm from the real capital of Ireland!" He laughed, and caught my subtlety.
"So, you're not from Monaghan and you're not from Dublin. So where're you from?"
"Cork!" The single word was like a grand statement.
"Cork? Will you stop!" His face built up in surprise. "But shur, Jesus, isn't that where Joe the U2 sound engineer is from?"
I held the last suds of my pint steady in a mid-air toast and smiled sly. "Jesus, you're some conman," he laughed "you've been here for the past three hours and never said a word.
I got up off the bar stool and stepped back from the dream-weaving table stretched my hand across the counter and he returned the palm lock. I walked to the door turned and said: "If U2 ever need a pipe player..." He punched the air with a clinched fist and said, "I'll be there!"
I stood by the door and called back to him, "Mighty!"
"Mighty!" he replied with a smile as wide as the Brooklyn Bridge on his big face.
I walked out of the Journeyman's Rest and stepped back into New York. I crossed West 35th and a yellow cab missed my ass by a matter of inches. I was sloshed and headed for base camp.
It's business as usual at the Rihga. I sink into the plush carpet, I have the bar on my right, reception to my left. I choose reception. Half the team have assembled for the journey to the Garden. The other half? Somewhere I guess. The half that are there are delighted to see me. Again. Firm handshakes, hugs and backslaps are the order of the day. "Jack you made it!" - as if I was some kind of returning Mod Caesar. But they didn't have bars in the Senate.
'Richard Davies arrives with a clip board under his arm. "Jack, you old rascal!" Another hug. A wet kiss on the cheek for him. Cyrano likewise. Richard's clipboard bears the names of musicians and others designated seats in the two minibuses that are going to take people to the Garden. He writes my name in between Zak and Susie Webb. Now, according to him all I have to do is be standing on a pre-arranged pattern on the reception carpet (he playfully points to it on the floor) at exactly 6:45, and I can take my seat on the bus... "Jack. Come in the bar mate!", a familiar English voice calls from behind. We've been on a few tours together down through the years and it's great to be back in touch. More slaps on the back as a 50-dollar bill lands rather vulgarly in a crumpled ball on the counter.
"So, how are you then?"
"Great," I reply, "I feel fantastic. I've been drinking all day across town."
"I can see, that. You smell like a bleeding brewery. What yer want?"
"Oh, I dunno. Something not too strong, I suppose.
"Right. JD? How about Southern Comfort?"
"Christ, no. Haven't they got bottled beer?"
Two or three of them later, I'm trying to keep an eye on my watch, and the carpet spot where Richard Davies has told me to be standing. He has chosen this rather unusual point of rendezvous because quite simply the same man has a clutch of bad memories of me after a gig in Washington, DC in 1989. It doesn't often occur to me that I don't have to keep an eye on the carpet spot to synchronise, all I have to do is check my watch. But this is what happens, see. This is the down side. Talk is everywhere in here. The place is thronged with people all talking 'WHO.' What was loud conversation earlier is now an even louder muffled drone of a roomful of a hundred mouths all yapping simultaneously. It's not really loud but to someone in my present condition (despite the fact I'm rock steady on my feet) it's bedlam, a cacophony of incoherent yapping. I want to run out of here but can't because the greetings and slapping are still in progress. Old friends are coming from every corner... "Didn't know you were coming to New York" ---- "I had a hunch you'd make it."
I'm surrounded by a gaggle of well wishers and I'm trying to delve into history, listen to what they're saying and keep an eye on the carpet spot. It's awful. I hate when I'm like this, but I do it because it's the realest moment in my life and I love me when I'm like this. I'm in control here. I'm rock steady on my feet (like my old man used to be when he got blind drunk) and I'm soaring, my head's flying with that incredible feeling of a complete lack of responsibility. I'm in the middle of the throng and I hear a voice.. "Jack!" Then, "anyone seen Irish?" People laugh. It's Richard. "Come on, I've been looking for you,. Might've known you'd he 'ere. It's show time."
I break free from the throng and leave behind a few impossible promises. Walk out into the sun glare of West 54th and he bundles me into a busload of musicians and others, who laugh good naturedly when they see Guess Who? ---- "Oh, no. It' s Irish bloody Jack! How are yer mate?"
"Great, Zak. Actually I feel bloody fantastic."
"I know you do. You smell like you've Just crawled out of a vat, Jack."
Everybody laughs. And that's it. The Who caravan makes its way through Manhattan over to the Garden. I gaze out the window at New York 7pm life. The summer skies, cloudless and blue. Buildings touch the sky. Beggars and businessmen. Skateboard and roller skate suicidals. Yellow cabs and stretch limos. 24-hour hi-fi stores. Bars and bars. The place is Club a-go-go. I'm in my favourite city. I'm alive. God knows how, but still alive. Still rubbing shoulders with the old rascals. I'm still alive. The journey is short but it could go on forever, the way I feel. This is bloody Nirvana this is. Someone hands me a bottle of beer. A voice from the back of the bus quips with rich subtlety: "I just happened to have it on me, Jack." More laughter. Ah yes, I'm a fine fellow, indeed. Loved by all. Band and assistants. Fine for you Jack, old son. Fine for you, Bill.
We nose through the traffic and eventually reach the golden gates of the Garden. Security slows us down and then waves us through. Up under the tunnel and then we park in the backstage area, A hundred men with walkie-talkies. Everybody spills out. Excited voices, more handshakes. Friendly jibes. "Oh, no. Not you again!" A hug. The pulse goes up a few notches as assistants scurry from room to room. Rex, Nobby, Cyg, Paul, Richard and Double- they have a stall to set up before the great market opens. Someone's got their arm around me, oh no, not more hugs, but no, this is different. Bill, long time manager of the band and long suffering adviser, has been listening to my whooping, he wants a quiet word. We find some space. "Jack, you've been drinking,, haven't you? You know how I feel about it, Jack. It's one more headache I don't need. I'm sorry." He hands me a front row ticket. I'm so surprised, I am unable to argue. "Why don't you watch the band from the front and have a good think about the way you are right now, eh?," It's so simple. It's like a knife cutting through my senses. I feel numb, dumb, and unable to act this one out. Bill knows me from old so there's no point in my trying to kid him. But inside, I'm livid that anyone could do this to me. I mean, ME! Pete's friend, Roger's friend, John's friend. Fucking everybody's friend. I walk out into the front where the seats are, tear up the ticket and hand it to the steward. He looks at me amazed. I walk up the aisle and out into the foyer. Hundreds of people are milling around waiting for The Who's Quadrophenia but little do they know who's walking through them with his head in the gutter. Ever felt you've been rumbled?
Out into the street. I mean, this is really happening to me. Who would believe it? I stand around on the sidewalk, dazed and confused, wait for my life to jump through the hoop and flash before me, but of course it doesn't, it needs a jump start. I'm dead inside. I walk to a pay phone and ring a number, "Al?"
" ---- Jack? Jack, you're in New York?"
We talk quick,
"Are you drunk, Jack?"
"I need help!"
"If you're drunk Jack, don't waste my time. I'm not meeting a drunk. I told you that before remember."
"I need help right now, Al." Silence. Hesitation. "Al, you still there?" Thenä
"If you need help Jack, I'll get you help. But I'm not drinking with you"
"Okay, okay. Just tell me what to do."
"Get in a cab and come over here. I'll meet you outside my apartment."
Before I can add any more drunken logic the line goes dead. I climb into a yellow cab and meet Al outside the building. We haven't seen each other in a year but on the journey across town we hardly speak. Al is justifiably pissed off.
"Any idea, where we're heading? I ask.
'We're going to a meeting."
"A meeting? What, you mean like a butcher's union meeting?"
Al ignores my sarcasm. "You'll see." The cab stops outside a church hall in a badly lit street over on Amsterdam. Al makes a few enquiries and we climb the stairs to the first floor. We enter a huge room, the size normally reserved for school plays with a piano in the corner. There are rows of seats facing a floor riser which is occupied by a table with three chairs. Al and I choose seats up front. The room is filling up. People from all walks of life but all apparently with one particular problem. The table is now occupied by three gentlemen, all of them mid-thirties to mid-forties. Two wear well-tailored suits, the third dressed in leather jacket over jeans. Clothes don't matter here, but honesty does.
The first guy at the table stands up and the hubbub dies down. I'm sitting watching this unfold before me with Al next to me like 'no matter what somehow we are going to get through this.' I listen to what the guy has to say: his accent strikes me as 'street' New Yawk, he speaks out the side of his mouth like Stallone. "Hi everybody. My name is Vincent. I'm chairing the meeting tonight and I just wanna say thanks to everyone, everyone of you who had the courage to come along this evening. To those of you who have not been here before, welcome to Alcoholics Anonymous. I'd like to say that...em.. my name is Vincent...and I have been a hard drinker since I was eighteen years old. I am now 41 and it's still an uphill battle..." The other two follow. Those who then volunteer to go up on the podium have their own unique story to tell, their own unique reason to drink. I sit there watching some remarkable people and think to myself... 'how in Christ can that person have a drink problem? He's a theatre manager for God's sake.' A dig in the ribs breaks me from my reverie. Al whispers "Go up and talk, Jack,"
"Go up. Everybody's waiting."
The chairman welcomes me with a careful smile. My face is new. he doesn't know me from Adam. I look into the faces sitting before me, It's almost like one of my readings except that this is more real and there are no posters on the wall, no tape machines running. Thanks to Al, who deserves my eternal friendship, this is the first time in my life that I am going to stand in front of a roomful of strangers and say... "Hi. My name is Jack and I have a drink problem." I go on to talk about how drink gives me an edge, how it makes me feel like I can do anything, how it broke up my parent's marriage and how it is going to break up my own. I have no problem finding the words, I am, at heart, a stage person. I'm up here talking about myself, growing in confidence and weaving in and out of eloquence. You get a certain high sometimes admitting to total strangers what you can't to your friends. The adrenaline flows as the weight comes off your shoulders and words come easy. Al is sitting with arms folded and a broad smile as I explain that right now, just across towns some old friends of mine are on a stage playing a piece of music which is the story of my life and I'm not even there to celebrate it. I'm here instead on another stage in Amsterdam, telling people I have a drink problem. The irony is immaculate. Vintage 'Q.' My own account is no better, no worse, than anyone else's. I just make it dramatic because I'm good with words. But they listen and they look at me wondering how a nice Irish boy like me can fuck things up. It's easy.
The next day I aim heading for the Rihga on West 54th. Of all people, I bump into Bill. I apologise for my condition the night before and tell him about going to the AA meeting across town. His eyes light up. He hugs me tight. I don't expect it. Perhaps he sees something in me I have long forgotten. "Jack, see you, in reception, at 6:45 - and don't be late!" I'm back on the team.
I walk into the Rihga with reception to my left and the bar on my right. I choose bar. The English voice is there again and I hear "Jack have a drink. Where'd you get to last night?" I brace myself and take a deep breath... "Sorry, no more drink. But I'll have a coke with ice." He looks perfectly astounded but orders for me just the same. The bartender smiles when he hears my call. "Coke with ice, it is." What's so funny? I dunno for now, but I find out later that in America Coke is automatically served with ice. If You ask for 'Coke with ice' it sounds like you're talking about the other kind of coke. Apparently everyone else is aware that this is how I am ordering, but nobody bothers to let me know. They're all too busy having a laugh.
'English' is practically standing on top of me, his balance is not too good. He smells like a brewery. His eyes, just about in focus, another couple of drinks and they'll be gone. "Been at it all day," he tells me. I look at him and I see me. His eyes target my face. "Tell yer something, he says, Fair do's and all that. You've actually stopped drinking. Good on yer, mate." He slaps me on the back hard and I almost choke on my coke. But the real choker is that he's congratulating me for coming off the stuff while he's getting drunker. It's a circle.
What's sad is that he's not sober, then I would really appreciate the slap on the back. I take my coke from the bar counter and look into it. Ice cubes look back at me. I take a tentative sip. Then raise it in toast before my friend. "To The Who!" he belches. "No," I reply, "to Bill, for getting me back on the straight and narrow." 'English' manages a drunken smile and burps.... "Bill!" And from there on it's... coke-after-coke-after-coke, after-coke.
© Irish Jack Lyons