As Toxteth Day Of The Dead approaches, we welcome back special guest writer, Lee Ashcroft.
He was an esteemed member of The JAMs Choir and gives us an insight into rehearsals, working with Nick Coler and performing a KLF classic in his previous article here.
For Part 2, Lee tells us about the next chapter of his ‘Welcome To The Dark Ages’ experience. Don’t miss a beat…
Follow Lee on Twitter.
You can’t drum.
More specifically, you don’t think you can drum.
There are a lot of things you don’t think you can do. Including singing. But inexperience hasn’t stopped you this week.
Remember where you are? You’re walking out of the front door of the Florrie. You had to run in, which wasn’t easy given that you’re still wearing the yellow robe, grab your shirt and umbrella from the green room, and you’re on your way back to your place in the procession. You need to talk to your fellow Choir members to try and work out what just happened. Was that really Jarvis?
You assume the thick Glaswegian voice isn’t intended for you. But when you see the man, wearing full Scottish regalia and holding a set of bagpipes, he’s pointing straight at you. You take notice.
“WHA’ YOU DOIN’?”
What have you done? A lot can go wrong in 72 hours – now it’s your turn to make a mistake. You don’t know what you did – were you trespassing? Was the Florrie closed now? All you knew was that whatever you did, you sensed an anger that told you, you shouldn’t fuck with this bloke. You sheepishly tell him the banal, potentially incriminating truth.
“Just grabbing my shirt from upstairs.”
“Right, cum ‘ere. Stick this on ye, you gonna play along wi’ me, right?”
You realise – he’s not angry. He’s panicked. He needs a drummer. He had one lined up, and they bailed on him. And you’re just standing there. You’ll do.
If you’d thought about it for a second, you’d have probably refused. Your rational mind knows you can’t drum. But there’s no time. Without a moment to consider what was happening, you find yourself with a metal bracket sliding over your shoulders. Then you see the drum. It’s a massive bass drum, two or three feet in diameter, a foot deep, with the words ‘Caledonian Cowboy Collective’ written on the side. If you had even thought to protest, the words wouldn’t have left your mouth quickly enough. Your new, short-notice responsibility is evidence that someone HAD protested quickly enough.
You’re 6’4”. You know you’re unusually tall. But with this drum strapped to your shoulders, pushing down on your chest, you have to peer over the top just to see where you’re going. Screws are fastened, fittings are secured. You are handed a pair of bass drumsticks. You’re good to go.
“Right, c’mon, we need to go now!”
The bagpiper calls on you with urgency. In haste, you unload your shirt and umbrella to one of the 400. He assures you he will look after it. You assume you will never see this shirt and umbrella ever again. You run from the pavement to the front of the procession – in front of the Ice Kream Van, the pullers, and the rest of the 400. Only an American lollypop lady goes in front. She reminds you of Patsy Stone.
The bagpipes begin, and you start to walk. You have to walk, because the Van is already being pulled. You were looking forward to having a nice relaxing stroll through Liverpool with your new bandmates.
As the days, weeks, and months follow, you realise what happened on the Great Pull North remains a rather fuzzy memory to you. You had time to prepare yourself physically and emotionally for your role in the JAMs Choir, and to catalogue it in your mind accordingly. This, on the other hand, was a complete surprise. You know you cannot give a completely authoritative account of what you did on that journey through Liverpool, that the pieces may not always fit together, and that others may contradict your testimony. But it will be a story worth telling.
You listen carefully to the melody, and attempt to drum along. You try and hit at the start of each bar, but this is in a meter you absolutely cannot comprehend. One bar seems to have three beats, the next four, the next seven… You have some degree of musical understanding, but you feel completely lost. In the end, you bang the drum whenever it feels right. Nobody else seems to care anyway. The Ice Kream Van is close to drowning you out with a chiming version of ‘What Time Is Love.’
You have no idea where you’re going. Gimpo regularly runs in front to direct the procession, as well as the traffic constantly threatening to turn the events tragic. Time has ceased to mean anything. By the time the bagpiper stops his first piece, you are completely lost in space and time. He introduces himself as Johnny. You shake hands with him. You ask him how he became involved with this event and, like so many people involved, he tells you he’s an old friend of Bill’s. Whatever threat you may have initially felt upon his introduction has subsided – he’s a very friendly bloke with a mean knack for playing the bagpipes. He asks you to look after his drum. With the exception of getting caught on a tree branch, and not moving quickly enough to stop a child hitting it with their hand, you look after it for well over three miles. You haphazardly decline every invitation to stop if it gets too heavy.
He tells you that the piece of music you’ve had trouble comprehending is in fact ‘Justified & Ancient’. He even sings it in the key it’s being performed in, to try and help you figure out the meter. Over the course of the Great Pull North, you attempt to play along to this at least five more times, and on each occasion, you completely fail. Again, nobody else seems to care.
You have better luck drumming to ‘America No More’, the B-side to ‘America: What Time Is Love?’ written for and performed on bagpipes. ‘Flowers Of The Forest’ also proves relatively straightforward. A request to perform something for the procession to sing along to is met by Johnny and you. As you drum, dozens of folks behind you begin singing ‘When The Saints Go Marching In’.
They are marching to your beat.
Without trying, you have formed an entourage. Gimpo occasionally checks in. The man holding your belongings remains close behind, and now you have people handing you bottled water. It may not be the warmest day of the summer – it’s grim up north – but you can’t remember being hotter for a long time. You know people are photographing you, but you don’t know who, or for what purpose. Part of you regrets not being with the choir – you still want to share your feelings on what happened at the Florrie. But another part of you is relishing the newfound responsibility. And all you need to do is shout, “WATER,” and someone will run to bring you a bottle with great haste. Shout, “MOVE,” and the folks in front of you clear a path. This is power you’ve seldom experienced before. Without rhyme nor reason, you have found yourself front and centre of the proceedings.
This will only become more true as the evening progresses.
Johnny spots higher ground on Waterloo Road – a patch of grass overlooking the road ahead. He tells you to run, and you oblige. The pain in your shoulders can wait. He tells you that the pair of you are going to perform for the entire procession. The showman in you is delighted at this, and hopes that you’re not performing ‘Justified & Ancient’. You’re not. You get the best view of the Great Pull North you could possibly hope for – dozens of Ice Kream Van pullers, hundreds of marchers, a few stray and bemused onlookers who couldn’t possibly understand.
You assume you’ll be running to catch up to the front of the procession. You are wrong. You take Johnny’s lead, and walk alongside the procession. Your entourage is gone, along with your shirt and umbrella. You really like that shirt, you think to yourself.
You’re much closer to your destination than you thought. You recognise the road – you can see your car a little further up. Before you reach it though, you turn left, opposite the Invisible Wind Factory (there’s a reason you parked on this road), into a wasteland. At its centre are two large pyramids, wooden frames in the shape of the Shard in London. You haven’t read ‘2023’ yet, but you know from Day 2 that the Shard is a key location in the book. These Shards are made of wood. You have a suspicion of what’s going to happen next.
You pass a pizza van. You’re suddenly hungry.
400 people begin to form a giant circle around the Shards. You are not among them. Johnny takes you next to the structures, and instructs you to follow his directions, and play along as before. Two hours earlier, you were a bit-player in a show. Now, you’re centre-stage in a spectacle, within touching distance of the Shards. Or you would be, if you could move your arms properly.
The Officiator has taken his shirt off. You don’t know why, but it soon becomes clear that he knows something you don’t. You see Bill and Jimmy circle the Shards wearing horns last seen at the Barbican in 1997. You can’t hear what the Officiator is shouting, but you can hear the 400 people around you chanting: “MuMuFication. MuMuFication. MuMuFication. MuMuFication. MuMuFication. MuMuFication. MuMuFication. MuMuFication…” This isn’t a show any more. This is a ritual.
You watch as two coffins are placed within the pyramids. Rumours have spread about their contents for days – KLF master tapes, scarecrows, and the remains of James Brown, all seem as likely as anything at this point. You watch Bill and Jimmy wield torches. You don’t know where the flames came from, but you know where they’re heading. Johnny looks nervous. You keep on drumming.
You are surprised at how quickly the flames engulf the Shards. So, too, is Johnny. The wind is blowing in our direction. You’re still wearing the cape from the Rites Of MuMuFication, and it’s probably not flame-retardant. He recommends a hasty relocation somewhere less downwind from the raging fire that 400 people wisely chose to stand 30 feet away from.
Relocated, you continue to play. All around you, “MuMuFication. MuMuFication. MuMuFication. MuMuFication. MuMuFication. MuMuFication. MuMuFication. MuMuFication,” as the flames go higher. You wish you could see the full spectacle – but you’re thrilled to be part of it.
The fire dies down, and the circle disperses. Johnny walks you to a van, where a team finally relieves you of your burden – three hours later.
Your shoulders are in excruciating pain. And you couldn’t care less.
A man approaches you from behind. He hands you your shirt and umbrella. You’re stunned and grateful in equal measure.
You walk around dazed. The choir are gathered around the Ice Kream Van, where Bill and Jimmy are explaining what you missed out on, as Daisy promised earlier. They explain MuMufication, and along with their new business partners, introduced as Rupert and Claire Callender, they begin selling bricks.
The mixture of physical pain and euphoria is the only thing keeping you awake. Your arms barely move, but your body cannot stop, staggering across this wasteland. Sweat drips from every pore in your body – the robe, the exercise, and the burning embers see to that. Your stomach growls. Standing in this wasteland, ‘Justified & Ancient’ seems a long time ago; for you know a heap of broken images, where the fire burns and the Shards give no shelter, the 400 no relief, and the Graduation Ball no sound of peace.
The queue for the pizza van is too long.
It might have been minutes, it might have been hours, you honestly don’t know. But you find Johnny outside the Invisible Wind Factory, and you shake hands. Initially he doesn’t recognise you – the drum around your shoulders was, until that point, your most distinctive feature. He thanks you for your efforts, and hands you a business card. It reads, “Johnny Gauld – Caledonian Cowboy Collective’. He tells you that you are the latest member of his collective of drummers, and invites you to contact him when you get home. He plays the bagpipes professionally across the country, and he tells you that if he ever heads south, he wants you to drum for him. You’re flattered and delighted to take him up on this offer, and speculate that in such an event, the pair of you might even get an opportunity to rehearse in advance. One day, if you work really hard, you might even find the rhythm of ‘Justified & Ancient’. You shake hands again, bid each other a good night, and walk into the Invisible Wind Factory.
Someone offers you a shoulder rub. You don’t think twice.
All the dancing you’re doing isn’t helping.
You’re in too much pain. You leave at 1am. This will be your biggest regret of the week.
But the grease-laced pepperoni pizza you eat at the hotel makes it worthwhile.
The next morning, you get your graduation certificate signed at the Dead Perch Lounge. You tell Bill this story, though in not so many words. He is delighted, and tells you, “you’ve got a job for life, there.” You wonder how serious he is about that.
Days later, you email Johnny. He will reply thanking you again, repeating his offer.
A fortnight later, a picture of you and Johnny appears on the Guardian website, as the banner image for a review of ‘2023: A Trilogy’. The review is considerably less warm than you are in the photo.
Six months later, you will develop a pain in your left shoulder. You must see a doctor about that.
A year later, you are still waiting for Johnny to call. You know it’s coming. You just don’t know when, or why.
You used to hate the bagpipes.
You were wrong.
You’re already dead, but the Caledonian Cowboy Collective lives on.
Unlit Pyre Photo Courtesy of L. Ashcroft.
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