Chapter One: The Great Gig in the Sky
December 24th, 2012
The greatest rock guitarist this undeserving world ever knew is dead. He died three days ago. Doomsday. The whole world was supposed to end. For Woody Lee, it did.
When I first hear the bad news, I’m in the process of pissing it up in a pub on the north end of Clapham High Street, and seriously pondering my life decisions. The Christmas season will really make you do that. It’ll especially make you do that if you’re a forty-five year old, unattached, unemployed scribbler, spending Christmas Eve pissing it up on Clapham High Street.
The pub, which is a desperate mash-up between gastro, sports bar, and dance club, has been steadily filling up with chattering, cheering humanity for the past hour, and threatens to reach critical mass by twelve’s stroke. South London’s melting-pot of weekend warriors, out in force to celebrate the festive occasion.
Scan the patronage. Sports jerseys, polos, ugly Christmas sweaters, pencil skirts with half-inch heels. Not my people.
On the stereo system, The Pogues play “Fairytale of New York.” Shane MacGowan’s telling me about the old man in the drunk tank, singing ‘The Rare Old Mountain Dew’:
“I turned my face away
and dreamed about you…”
Merry fucking Christmas. God bless us, every one.
At least I’m not completely alone. I quickly made friends with the bartender, a bright-eyed, spritely lady in her (I’m going to guess) early thirties. She’s pint-sized, with raven hair too pitch and matte to be natural, chopped into a spiked pixie cut. Her violet blouse teases cleavage. Her eyes are large and dark. She remarked how she liked my accent when she slid my first drink across the wood, and asked if I was American. (Get that one a lot since landing here in the Big Fog.) Her hair gives the pint-sized pixie an edgy, Joan Jett vibe, which I dig. Her Bristol lilt is endearing as fuck, as are her big eyes. I convinced her to knock one back with me, on her condition that we make the shot Jager. I’m entertaining the prospect of not spending Christmas Eve solo after all, but it’s at that point I get distracted.
Down the wood from me, a pair of chappies in tartan pullovers are braying to one another with that insufferably thick Northerner inflection that sounds like they’re deep-throating a hollow tube with every vowel. I’ve so far managed to block them out, and pay no mind, rapt in my pixie bartendress. But when she leaves me to attend to other thirsty patrons, my attention wanders, and my ear catches one of the chappies warbling out a familiar name.
I slide down the wood. Tap the nearest of the chappies on his wool shoulder. He turns to face.
“What was that?” I say.
My approach a bit sudden, my tone a bit aggro, the chappy brushes me off at first with a wise-crack. I’m feeling one too many sheets to the wind to fake friendly with some yuletide yo-yo. Square up, let the chappy know that I don’t get brushed off.
The chappy puts down his pint, and squares to. He’s got an inch on me, but he looks office-soft under that ganzie. Compared to him, I’m a leather and denim-clad, tattoo-covered piece of iron. If this goes to the next level, it’ll be over quick. I’ll probably get banned from this place. Maybe I can grab the pint-sized pixie’s number before getting tossed to the pavement by a beefy bouncer.
Fortunately for the chappy, his mate’s a bit soberer, a bit more rational. He plays peace-keeper between us, and explains, “It’s all over the telly, mate. Saw the story m’self. Geezer’s fuckin’ kicked the bucket. It’s true. Look it up if you don’t believe me.”
He goes on, saying something about not wantin’ any trouble, and wishing me a merry whatever, but I’m already turning away. The implications of what the chappy’s telling me are enough to make me throw fist, if it’s nothing but porky-pies.
But if it’s true…
Back to the pint-sized pixie. Order another shot. She slides it across with a wink, but I’m too off the flirt for the moment to wink back.
I toss back fire-water, and ask the pixie if this joint’s got a television someplace.
She points off to the far side of the pub, around a corner.
I get up from my stool and begin to leave, when she puts a hand on my leather elbow. “You coming back, love?” she inquires, leaning across the wood, and smiling.
I smile back, briefly, then split. First business, then pleasure, love.
Push through the mob of liquored Londoners. It’s staggering-room only. I brush past every colour of ugly sweater in the book. My nose is assaulted with strong perfume, after-shave, and ale breath.
Kirsty MacColl singing:
“They’ve got cars big as bars,
they’ve got rivers of gold,
but the wind goes right through you;
it’s no place for the old…”
I find the telly in back. It’s lonely, high in the corner, forgotten and ignored on a loud, packed, holiday night. Must only be here when the geezers want to watch the matches, I figure. Reach up and ignite the set. I’m ticking through stations, looking for BBC, TMZ, E!, anything. It can’t be true, I keep saying inside my head. It’s bullshit. It doesn’t make sense. Not Woody.
I feel a big hand thwap me twice on my leather back. Not exactly friendly-like.
A big voice behind me: “Paws off, mate.”
Turn and see a big, black silver-back, wearing a navy ball-cap, navy jacket, and eye-glasses. Fat, but not soft. Shit-house solid, actually. Looks like he lifts cars for a living, when he’s not bouncing this pub. No sense of humour. Guy like this, I always hope to get a mo-town, maybe Marvin Gaye-type vibe. Hope for a touch of chill and sophistication. But the way he’s no-selling me, the better bet’s probably gangster rap. Definitely not my people.
I concede to the ape’s wishes to leave the set alone. Take myself back to the pixie. Plop down heavy on the stool, slam back the rest of my pint, and order another. Miffed.
“What’s the trouble, love?” she leans in, giving us more of a peek of the promised land.
I give a half-shrug and say, “I gotta check the news. Somebody I know might be dead.”
She gasps, leans in even further. “What, your friend famous or something?”
I nod, and try to hold eye contact.
Pixie asks, “Why don’t we just look it up?” She whips out a fat mobile from her ass pocket, and uses her thumbs to key. “What’s your friend’s name?”
Shake my head, and roll my eyes. I’ll never get used to those things.
I give Pixie the name. The name I overheard the chappy utter. The name of the famous friend.
I hold my breath.
It doesn’t make sense. Not Woody.
Her thumbs do quick work. Her elbows and breasts resting on the surface of the bar. Sneak a look, and catch the edge of black lace past violet.
My eyes snap back as she hands me her mobile.
“I’m sorry, love.” She gives me a consolatory frown, then leaves me to tend to some new customers, down past the chappies.
I stare at the pixie’s cell phone screen. The spit catches in my throat. I feel my heart grow heavy as a lump of stone. Or coal. There it is, in digital black and white:
“ROCK GOD” WOODY LEE DEAD
Vancouver, BC – The body of legendary guitarist and heavy metal icon Woodstock “Woody” Lee was discovered Christmas Eve morning by RCMP at his private cabin, located just outside Manning Provincial Park. Emergency units responded to a distress call from a known acquaintance, who claimed the rock legend succumbed to death in his sleep, sometime early in the morning of December 21st. He was 53 years old.
The exact cause of death is not yet known. Although the surviving family has requested an autopsy be conducted, medical staff on the scene and law enforcement officials state they have found no clear indication of foul play thus far. It appears the musician died of natural causes.
Lee was born in Nelson, British Columbia, and began his musical career at the tender age of 18. He formed the band Tenth Ring in 1977, together with life-long best friend Robbie James, and fellow classmates Chris Kale and Brody Morris.
After taking Western Canada by storm, Tenth Ring began touring the United States in the early 1980s. The quartet quickly gained popularity, in large part due to their appearance at California’s historic Us Festival, which took place Memorial Day weekend 1983. By ’85, Tenth Ring was riding high on the wave of glam, thrash, and progressive heavy metal bands which were emanating from Southern California.
By the dawn of the nineties, the band had released five albums, and reached multi-platinum status.
Tenth Ring disbanded in 1994, but united again in early 2000. Releasing three more albums between 2001 and 2010, the band enjoyed a modern renaissance. They endured as a massively influential presence in hard rock and heavy metal, touring the world and frequently headlining stages as part of the widely successful Ozzfest circuit.
News of Lee’s death has shaken the entire music industry to its very core.
“Woody had a heart of gold,” reminisces Black Label Society’s frontman, and fellow icon guitarist, Zakk Wylde. “There was this purity to him. He’s a real inspiration to anyone who believes in the power of music.”
“He had this energy that was tangible,” agrees Judas Priest’s Rob Halford. “He was a good man, and he’ll be missed.”
Robbie James released a statement earlier today after news of Lee’s death became public:
“Woody was a man for the ages. He flew on wings that no one could clip, and no sun could ever scorch. The news of his death has left me deeply saddened. I mourn a partner, a brother, and a good friend. His spirit is the spirit of rock and roll, and it lives on in all of us.”
Lee is survived by his sister Catherine; his parents Donald and Eleanor; his children Woodstock Jr, William, Wanda and Wallace; and his widow Lana Louise Lee.
After reading the article over twice, I confirm its content by checking three other news sources online. Everyone’s telling the same, sad tale, without adding any new details.
On the stereo, Shane and Kirsty trading slags:
“You’re a bum, you’re a punk!”
“You’re an old slut on junk,
lying there almost dead
on a drip in that bed.”
“You scumbag, you maggot,
you cheap lousy faggot!
Happy Christmas, your arse
– I pray God it’s our last…”
I have to get out of here, but don’t know where to go. The only place that beckons me now lay an ocean and a continent away, on the west coast of Canada. Where I used to call home. With Robbie and the guys.
Don’t even know for sure if I’m welcome back.
The seeds of tears form, burning acid in my chest. I douse them with a heavy haul of ale before they can germinate. Using the pixie’s mobile, I use my clumsy, calloused index to punch in a search. Learn there’s apparently a candle-light vigil going on tonight in the city of London. Right now, actually. Pictures and videos taken live from the plaza at Piccadilly Circus, where a memorial site’s been created, already streaming onto social media sites. Crowds are already gathering. My people. Out in force, and grieving.
Waste no time. Plunk down copper for the pixie, and exit the pub onto Clapham High. Jog across the laneway, into an off-licence beside the underground station. Buy a pint of scotch.
Outside, on the pavement again. South London is unjustly quiet. The city should be coming to pieces, rioting with indignation and grief at the loss of such a great man. But it’s Christmas Eve, and the bulk of Battersea sleeps. Cheers and whoops fly from the pub, along with a drunk chorus of Pogues lyrics, but they are quickly eaten up by the night’s vacuum.
“The boys of the NYPD choir still singing ‘Galway Bay’,
and the bells are ringing out for Christmas Day.”
Cheers. Merry Christmas.
My blood boils at their joy. Again, I’m feeling the urge to ball fist and let fly. My kingdom for a Molotov cocktail.
Sudden thought strikes. Realize I haven’t checked my own mobile in hours. Grab my cheap, second-hand flip-phone out from my pocket.
Nothing. No missed calls. No texts. No word from Robbie, or Chris. Sweet fuck-all.
Search through my list of contacts. Ixnay on any of my old, Vancouver numbers. Of course. They were all stored on the phone I chucked into the Thames last year, in a fit of misguided passion.
Riding the tube toward the west end of London, I take slugs from the pint of scotch. Try to remember the last time I touched base with the boys in the band.
Remember clearly the last convo with Brody:
“You’re nothing but a leech. Sucker-fish scum. Now get the fuck out!”
Yeah, that didn’t go well.
Reckon I’m probably still cool with Chris. Guy never had any beef with me. Chris, the enduring man-child. Crazy son of a bitch. Even tried convincing me not to move away.
Fuckin’ Deckland Masters. I could still be there now, grieving among brothers.
Take another pull off the glass bottle. Fend off sour memories.
Transfer at Elephant & Castle. Bakerloo to Piccadilly.
Why hasn’t Robbie been in touch? No doubt, he’s probably swimming in shit right now. When was the body found? Forgot to check the reports on the net. How does it land with the time difference? Fuck. Nothing but questions. Why did this have to happen when I’m so far away from everyone?
Why does Woody have to be dead? What the hell happened? “Natural causes”, the reports are saying…
Hear the soft strum of guitar in my head. Hear David Gilmour:
“How I wish,
How I wish you were here…”
Train pulls into Piccadilly. Pocket the pint. Snake my way through the labyrinth of tiled tunnel and stairs. Emerge to the twinkle of marquee lights, and neon. Shaftesbury Avenue. London’s illustrious theatre district.
From here, it seems I just need to follow the people.
See folks clad in denim, leather, spikes, studs, piercings, and ink. See my people. In droves. They march down the cobbled street, lit by the sparkle of bright signs advertising Billy Elliot and Mama Mia! I light up a butt, uncap my scotch, and fall in with the motley crew. My black leather jacket is a drop in an ebony and bone-white sea. My short, dark-brown hair mingles with long, blonde, banger locks, and high, black perms, and green mo-hawks, and pink bobs, and shaved heads. Many people carry tokens, memorabilia, lit candles.
The crowd I’m walking with converges with others. Streams of metal-heads pour in from adjoining laneways and alleys along Shaftesbury Avenue. Tributaries merge to form a wide Amazon, flowing toward the junction where Shaftesbury’s buffet of Broadway venues meets the throng of shops along Regent Street, The Haymarket, Glasshouse and Coventry Streets. Progress slows as the crowd finally eases into its delta.
Together, we pass under signs for Book Of Mormon. Wicked. We Will Rock You. Atop the marquee, a faux-bronze statue of Freddy Mercury immortally poses, mic in hand. Some beautiful blasphemer has hung a cardboard Les Paul replica around bronze Mercury’s neck, as an homage to Woody.
Hear Gilmour in my head:
“How I wish you were here…”
In Piccadilly’s great traffic circle, where all roads converge, hundreds are gathered. Candles and lighters are fireflies in the night. Above the horde, digital video ads glow on loop from enormous LCD screens. London’s gaudy attempt to duplicate Times Square. The loud logos of Samsung and Hyundai halo our vigil for Woody, and try to claim it for themselves. At the centre of the junction, Shaftesbury fountain juts skyward. Atop the fountain is the statue that I’ve always been told is a rendering of the Greek god Eros. At the centre-piece’s feet are littered a menagerie of offerings from grieving fans: photographs, guitar picks, posters, mag covers, pencil sketches, clay figures, popsicle effigies, original Tenth Ring vinyl presses, flowers, crosses, wreaths, and tea-lights.
Look up at the iron rendering of Eros. He wears a cardboard Les Paul too. Rock on.
Mercury and Eros. Two gods paying due to a fallen titan.
Someone from the crowd passes me a joint.
Haul deep. Cough hard. Teeth vibrate. Pass it on, into the night. Head swims.
One last swallow from the pint. The golden dregs in the bottle’s bottom, those are for Woody. I pour scotch out on Piccadilly cobble, and lob the bottle. It shatters with a POP off the face of Eros. Dark-green glass shards rain. That one’s for Woody, and for heavy metal.
The static murmur of the rowdy crowd spikes with exclamations.
Yells. Curses. “Who the fuck did that?” someone hollers.
Grief-marred mugs glare holes in my direction, looking for the source of the glass missile.
From far across the square, another voice rings out. “Fucking rights!”
See a beer bottle launch from the thick of the horde. It spins in the night air, and finds Eros square. POP! Another bottle flies, but misses. Screams erupt as it breaks on the pavement. Followers in the crowd scatter to avoid shrapnel. More missiles sail. Some hit, and rain glitter. Others fly wide, making frantic craters in the sea of fans.
I’m grabbed about the collar by a thick, dyke-ish woman in a patchy, denim bomber. Her too-white face and too-black lips curse me out in cockney.
I shove her off. She’s doughy, but I still feel danger. Murderous man-hate swells in her eyes.
From out of nowhere, a wayward vodka mickey smashes the dyke across the nose. Blood sprays on her denim jacket. Blood pours between ringed digits. She screams like a man.
From behind me, I hear a gruff voice. “Oy!”
Hands spin me around, straight into a fist. Some bruiser with a boxer’s bent nose, and a mohawk. Probably thinks I punched the dyke. Suddenly decides he wants to play hero.
My face is drunk numb, and the punch he feeds me lands powder-puff. I shake it off, and swing back. Incisors cut my knuckles. Taste blood in my mouth. My lip is already growing fat, I can feel it on my tongue.
Look around. Chaos. The crowd rolls and boils with skirmishes. Outcries of rage, anguish, pitiful sadness. Hear the trills of police whistles.
“… So you think you can tell
Heaven from Hell?…”
Glass bottles continue to fly to meet Eros above Woody’s tribute. Glass splits apart, and twinkles with the stars, and the lights from marquees, sponsors, and Christmas trees.
“… Blue skies from pain?…”