Sunday, June 22, 2014

Going to Sea in a Sieve by Danny Baker (Phoenix 2012)

Good though I was with our Olympian clientele, I confess the first time Marc Bolan came in I thought I was going to go off like a rocket and sit sizzling in the rafters. As already described, the shop was a small space and people just bounced straight in off the street to be presented in front of you like the next hopeful to be auditioned on our well-lit stage. When that someone is Marc Bolan and it’s 1973, you have only a few seconds to think, ‘Okay, okay. Got it. That’s Marc Bolan. And this is me. He is looking right at me and in precisely two more footsteps’ time he is going to talk to me. I, me, will be engaging with Marc Bolan. Don’t be loopy. Don’t do what you did with Michael Caine and shout, “Whoa, Michael Caine – top customer ahoy!” ’

I didn’t. I said, ‘Ha! Marc Bolan! There’s something!’ I may have even loudly warned him to have a care as we employed several store detectives – always a favoured joke of mine to shout in a shop barely the size of most people’s front rooms.

‘Hi, darling, is John about?’ he said in a bouncy Bolan-esque style, not unlike Marc Bolan.

John appeared immediately with a playfully caustic, ‘Well. Hello, stranger. Where the fuck have you been? This is Danny. He’s in love with you, so careful he doesn’t leap on you or something.’

There was some truth in this. When first taken on and informed, ‘They all come in here, so get over it,’ I had asked, possibly breathlessly, whether Marc Bolan or David Bowie could be included in that number. Ian had answered, ‘Bowie might do – did a bit before he tarted himself up – but Marc’s in and out all the time. Call him Mary: he loves it.’

I was not going to call him Mary. As far as I know, nobody ever called Marc Bolan Mary, but I did come to know many of Elton’s crowd by their feminine handles.

Marc and John disappeared into the small back area and gossiped over tea. I had to stay out and man the counter. I didn’t mind that – in showbiz, pretending to be professional and cool is one of the most cool and professional bluffs you can master. However, by now, I was brooding over something.

How did John know everyone? Pushing the philosophy further, I wondered how, in fact, everyone seemed to know everyone. I had often watched This Is Your Life and asked myself the same question. In theatrical circles, everyone seemed to have known everyone else for ever. They were all mates. How did that happen? I can understand that you might cross paths with a couple of subsequent celebrities on the struggle upwards, but how was it possible that entire legions of the famous charged into the spotlight en masse and linking arms?

I didn’t know anyone. Nobody in my family or army of friends knew anyone either. You’d have thought that we’d know at least someone, but no. I had never once been round a mate’s house and when the phone rang somebody answered it and said, ‘Joyce! Harry Secombe on the phone for ya.’ It just didn’t happen. And that’s Harry Secombe! You can imagine the remoteness of a John Lennon or even Kiki Dee. Yes, I had pretended to be David Essex’s brother, but it was precisely because nobody had a clue how an anomaly like that could exist and behave that I got away with such flapdoodle. And remember: not David Essex. His brother.

Now here I was. I knew Elton John. I’d made Long John Baldry a cup of tea. Run after Rod Stewart when he’d left his Access card in the machine (calling him a dozy git into the bargain), and now Marc Bolan – who Bernard Sibley and I had once imagined kidnapping and making him tell us all about the real meaning of Tyrannosaurus Rex lyrics – had just called me darling. He was sitting three feet behind me – behind me. When I’d paid to see him at the Lyceum Theatre I had battled and sweated for every inch that I could get closer to him onstage. Now he was less than a guitar case away and here I was, turning my back and doing a terrific impression of a man reading the NME. What on earth was going on?

After a short while Marc emerged past me again – I confess I took a whiff of what he smelled like as he inched by (Sweet Musk) – and began sorting out a few albums from the racks that he wanted to take with him. His browsing style indicated that in terms of having a finger on the pulse, he was no Elton John; he would hold up LP sleeves and shout, ‘John – what’s this? Any good?’ To which John would reply either, ‘Yeah, you’ll like that,’ or ‘Oh, please! Fucking dreadful.’ I was on the verge of also giving my opinion to Marc, but was sadly too busy not reading the paper.

Sneaking direct looks at him, I now noticed he was wearing The Greatest Shirt Ever Made. Between the open buttons of his full-length bottle-green coat, I could see it was of the palest peach silk and had Warhol-like prints in various bold colours of Chuck Berry doing the duck walk. This was a shirt that, if taken at the flood, might lead to greatness. As he came to the counter with an armload of covers I let him know. ‘Mary,’ I said (though instead of Mary I said ‘Mr Bolan’), ‘that is the greatest shirt I have ever seen on a person. Where’s it from?’

‘Oh, this? Um . . . I got it in New York. Funky, innit? You can’t get it though, this is the only one.’

I gave a regretful response while inwardly quite giddy with the notion that Marc Bolan actually thought, had the piece not been unique, I might shoot over to the States and buy a couple. I began sorting out his purchases and bagging them up. Marc went off to talk with John.

When he returned, he had done the single most magnificent and starry thing I have ever known. He had taken the shirt off and was now handing it to me.

‘There you go, babes. I don’t wear things more than once, so knock yourself out . . . Listen, John, I’ll call you, okay. Give Ian and Jake my love, talk soon.’

And with that he tripped out of the shop on his built-up Annello & Davide heels, his green coat now worn over a bare chest. I don’t think I even said thank you. As far as I recall, I was too busy standing there open-mouthed and thunderstruck. John looked at me and laughed. ‘She is something isn’t she? That is a STAR. It’s a great shirt, by the way.’

I just stood there, holding this saintly relic still warm from the Bolan body. I tried to respond to John but could only manage a noise like the death throes of a seagull.

It’s fair to say that, whereas Marc professed to wear a thing only once, I could make no such claim. I didn’t leave the shirt off for a fortnight. Everyone in the pubs of Bermondsey asked where did I get that shirt, and I would say, ‘This shirt? Marc fucking Bolan gave it to me.’ In return, I would ask where they got their shirt, and they would say a shop like Take 6 or Lord John, and then I would ask them to ask me once more where I got my shirt and when they did I would say, ‘Marc fucking Bolan gave it to me’ again.

So where is that shirt now? Why isn’t it in the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame or currently on eBay for ONE MILLION pounds?

Because my mother washed it. In our banging, boiling Bendix washing machine. Probably along with some of my brother’s rotten pants and last week’s football socks. In short, she had taken a recklessly cavalier approach to the ‘DRY-CLEAN ONLY’ warning on the shirt label. I can hear her defence even now:

‘Well, how was I to know? A shirt! Who the pissing hell dry-cleans a shirt? If it can’t take a wash, what’s the point in having it? Blimey, we’d go skint overnight if we had to dry-clean all the shirts in this house! Now buck your ideas up, because I’m busy.’

I was crushed, sickened by this act of wanton philistinism. But, as she further pointed out, ‘If it was so bleedin’ precious, what was it doing laying all over y’bedroom floor?’ She rather had me there.

For the record, when I found it, it was in our airing cupboard, sans any silken lustre, with the remnants of Chuck’s duck walk now barely discernible and suddenly of a size that might just about fit a ventriloquist’s doll.

Whenever Marc came into the shop after this he would always say, ‘How’s the shirt, D? Still loving it?’ And I would say, ‘Had it on last night!’ I lived in mortal fear he would one day ask for it back.

But, of course, real stars don’t do that.

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