High times, low times,
We've really got to go times.
Are we prepared for them? Are we ever really ready?
Astor had nothing to do, nowhere to go and he was completely free. He reached the end of Working Street before he realized that he had no idea where he was going. As usual, he had no idea of the name of the hotel or where it was situated in relation to the venue: the name of which he also didn't know. He was at a junction of main roads. He could see the castle perched on its hill ahead and to his left. Astor decided to be a tourist for a while There had to be one or two things worth looking at in Cardiff.
He returned to the concert venue two hours later, finding it by the simple process of retracing his steps and looking for familiar vehicles. Surprisingly, the new termination contract, which had arrived quite some time before, had let all of his changes stand. Wondering whether he should have held the record company more to ransom, he initialled and signed both copies and retained one for himself.
Tony Stock gave him an envelope of cash then offered his hand for a last goodbye. He seemed genuinely sorry at having to deliver the sack to someone who had brought him such a capable personal assistant. Astor was lucky enough to find Cath and her minibus outside when he realized that he still didn't know where the hotel was.
"I hear you got the push," she remarked. "Bastard, isn't it?"
"Certainly is. And all because we got bootlegged by some Eyetie bastard." Astor found that he still had the CD in his pocket. "I'll have to play this. Find out if it was worth it."
"I've heard it," nodded Cath. "It's really good. And the quality of the sound is good, too."
"Terrific. Are you going anywhere near the hotel?"
"Yeah, I can give you a lift. I suppose you don't know where it is?"
"What's it feel like, being right all the time?"
"Get in," laughed Cath. "I'm going to miss your wise-cracks," she added as she started the engine.
"Don't tell me, you've secretly fancied me all along and now it's too late to do anything about it, you feel like killing yourself."
"Don't flatter yourself, mate," scoffed Cath.
"Just a harmless fantasy," laughed Astor.
They reached the hotel after a quick spin along main roads. Packing took less than ten minutes because Astor had barely made a start on unpacking. He made a dozen telephone calls, and he ordered a meal from room service when he realized that he had missed lunch and he had been surviving on a large breakfast. He spent about twenty minutes persuading an outraged Jimmy Rail that a musicians' strike would do no one any good, then he addressed the problem of getting home.
His base lay in a small East Sussex town near the famous wartime airfield at Biggin Hill. Warleigh was often described as lying in the rural southlands of Croydon. Astor had bought a somewhat run-down, detached house in the early Seventies out of the proceeds from organizing ‘rave-ups', the fore-runner of the ‘rave' parties that gave the police so many headaches in the Nineties.
Astor and five others had hired disused factory buildings for a night and laid on all-night musical events. It had been a time of thirty-quids. Bands were hired at £30 a time, occasionally £40, a medical team of a junior doctor and two nurses to handle overdoses and general illnesses cost £30, two teams of three bouncers cost £30 each. A concession to sell over-priced soft drinks cost £30 plus 20% of the profits.
An admission price of £2 or £3 and thousands of eager customers had meant a lot of money coming in – until the organizers had decided that they were getting too much hassle from the people who complained about the noise, police officers trying to make drug arrests and the moaning minnies who got upset because people were actually daring to enjoy themselves.
During that period of musical madness, Astor had been able to raise enough cash to buy the house without troubling a mortgage provider. The current market value, after the long period of high inflation, was over fifty times the orginal purchase price. Astor viewed it as his ultimate pension fund. If he ever got really pissed off with the music business, he figured, he could sell the house and go and live cheaply in rural Spain or on some remote island with a comfortable climate and a low cost of living. Or even used the cash to set himself up as an advisor to the French rock music industry.
Another phone call, to a car-hire company, booked him a vehicle for the drive home. The efficient young lady was also able to consult her computer and tell him that he was 143 miles from home and that she could print out a map showing his route along the M4, the A329, the M25 and finally the A22.
Belinda caught up with him in the hotel car park as Astor was wedging his guitar cases firmly in place on the back seat. "Cath said you were back at the hotel," she said in an apologetic tone. "So I thought I'd come here to say goodbye in case you couldn't find your way to the venue."
"Good thinking," said Astor with a smile.
"Are you okay?"
"I suppose it's not quite the end of the world. At least the bastards paid me."
"I'm sorry it had to end like this, Pete."
"Just think how much worse it could have been four weeks from now. You going off on another tour and me stuck at home feeling suicidal at losing you. Or both of us feeling lucky to have got away from each other," Astor added with a cynical smile.
"Look after yourself, Pete. Maybe we'll be on another tour together one day."
"You never know your luck."
"Bee, I'm ready to head back," called Cath's voice.
"Her master's voice," remarked Astor.
"'Bye, Pete." Belinda offered him a lingering, parting kiss.
"Yep, cheers," said Astor with a smile, coming up for air.
He glanced at the dashboard clock as he moved out into the tail end of Cardiff's evening rush-hour. It was just after six o'clock. Allowing a couple of hours for high-speed driving on motorways and another half hour for messing about, he would be home in time not to switch on the Nine O'Clock News.
Once he had found North Road, it was straight ahead for the next five miles, then onto the M4 at interchange 32 and follow the motorway for the next hour and a half before the transfer to the M25 through Wokingham and Bracknell. If the roads stayed reasonably clear, he would be home before the reformed Intoxicant finished their set.
Looking at things in a positive frame of mind, he had copped for the money for the rest of the tour without the hassle of having to earn it. So he had that month free to line up more work. The band, on the other hand, still had to deal with the problem of coming off the payroll and switching from playing large venues most nights of the week to rolling round the club circuit, scratching a living. There was no point in considering the view from a negative outlook. It would achieve nothing and Astor had been there lots of times before.
Just travelling at the pace of the rest of the traffic, Astor reached his home at a quarter to nine beneath a threatening sky. The hire car was a part of his termination settlement and he felt entitled to keep it overnight and return it in the morning. A curtain on the front window of the granny flat over the garage twitched as he stopped on the drive. The rest of the house was in darkness. Astor got out of the car and began to unload his luggage, watching the sequence of moving lights inside the house: landing/staircase, hall then porch.
"Don't just stand there, give us a hand," he called when the front door opened.
"Pete?" said a female voice. "I thought your week off was next week?"
"You mean you've had a wild party and the place is a tip?" mocked Astor.
"So what are you doing here?" Wendy ignored his question. "You didn't get sacked because of the flakey drug bust, surely?"
Wendy was a year further into her forties than Astor and a burned-out hippie. She had lived in India and the Far East during her younger days, she had spent ten years in the United States making a living out of the ethnic culture/pet rock/crystal energy/pyramid power/general weirdo scene. Then she had returned to England to save her native environment from motorways, hypermarkets, forest plantations with non-native species of trees and pollution in all its forms. She was dedicating this phase of her life to trouble-making and putting some grief into the lives of those bureaucrats, who do cosy stitch-up deals and swindle the people who pay their wages.
Wendy was expert in extracting grants from the various education funds of international organizations like the United Nations and the European Union, tapping the funds of English, Welsh and Scottish national bodies and unlocking the coffers of county and district councils with a suitable budget. She had assembled an array of ageing computer equipment which let her create and print master copies of documents and leaflets and combine computer graphics and video sequences into educational videocassettes. Access to Astor's home recording studio also allowed her to make drive-time tapes with a message for motorists with a conscience or potential funding-donors.
She had once worn her black hair long. Now, the style was more a functional, eco-warrior's helmet, which made the silver threads more apparent. Long experience of dealing with people with big ideas and plans that needed plenty of other people's money had left her with a naturally sceptical expression. It was something to do with the way she tilted her head slightly to the left, lowered her right eyebrow and put on a quarter-smile.
Pete Astor had known her since about the age of eight. Their fathers had been friends for years and they had joined the single-parents' club at about the same time. The Astors had divorced. May Collier, Wendy's mother, had just packed a couple of bags and walked out on Jim Collier, leaving a note to say that she was never coming back, which had proved to be one hundred per cent accurate.
From the ages of ten and eleven respectively, Pete and Wendy had become used to spending days, weekends and even the odd week at each others' homes when their fathers were working on a joint project, or they needed to park the kid and go somewhere alone.
Inevitably, Pete and Wendy had gone to the same schools and they had been boyfriend and girlfriend for a time in their teens. Going to universities at opposite ends of the country had separated them for long periods. So had living in widely separated countries. Even so, they had kept in irregular touch with each other, and when Wendy had arrived back in England to stay with her part-container load of possessions and not much money, Astor had offered the freedom of his home to keep it safe from burglars while he was away working. It was an arrangement that worked very well for both of them.
Astor reached into the car for the jewel case belonging to the CD in the player and passed it to Wendy. "That's what got me the Order of the Spanish Archer."
"What's wrong with it?" Wendy said with a frown.
"It's a bootleg."
"So? Everyone who's any good gets bootlegged."
"And that's what got our record company Japs pissed off. These guys thought Intoxicant were good enough to bootleg but not Jimmy's Railheads. So the bastards sacked me."
"You're joking!" laughed Wendy.
"I kid you not. So here I stand, pockets full of pay-off cash and surrounded by luggage and guitars. No job, no prospects."
"You poor sod!" mocked Wendy.
"So are you going to grab a case, or what?"
"I think I ought to tell you, I rented out your bedroom for the next month, so you'll have to sleep in the garage," Wendy added as she started for the house with one of his cases.
"Nah, I'll just take over your room," said Astor. "Does our local tandoori still do deliveries? I'm starving, if you fancy ringing them."
"To hear is to obey, oh, Master."
Astor dumped his suitcases and his guitars in the hall then checked the garage. It contained just his car and an empty space where Wendy's van normally lived. He moved the hire car into the empty space, putting it out of reach of a junkie on night patrol with an iron bar and looking for radios and CD players to steal.
He put his guitars in his recording studio, which had been a back bedroom, and dumped his suitcases in his bedroom, next to the CD case, which Wendy had brought before disappearing. Astor was downstairs in the living room, sitting in front of the television and waiting for the news to come on, when she turned up again, dressed for going out in a very Sixties suede jacket with fringes and plain black cords. She had been into kaftans billowing around an almost Earth Mother figure for a long time. Now, her shape was much slimmer and more athletic, and better suited to climbing over fences and up trees in the cause of making a nuisance of herself.
"Don't wait up for me," she said with a smile.
"Don't tell me, you're off out to enjoy yourself," said Astor.
"When Jeff gets back with the van. Why does it take him three times as long as a normal person to get some petrol?"
"I told you, he fancies that girl at the petrol station. I bet he's chatting her up right now."
"He should be so lucky! By the way, did you say you're okay for cash at the moment?"
"Someone having fund-raising problems?"
"A bit more than problems. And there's a gas bill to pay."
"How much do you need?"
"We've got an electricity bill coming in next month. We need to plan for that."
"Why don't I just give you a grand and you can pay me back when you feel like it?"
"Don't tempt me," laughed Wendy. "I can cope with two hundred quid but I don't need the hassle of owing you a thousand pounds."
Astor dug into his envelope and offered notes.
Someone rang the doorbell three times.
"Your chariot awaits, Madame," Astor added.
"You can tell me all about getting fired in the morning," Wendy said on her way out.
His tandoori meal arrived when the news was half over. So was the bottle of Beaujolais that Astor had opened to go with the food. He was starting to feel quite mellow and at ease with the world. No doubt the surviving members of Intoxicant and their stand-in guitarist were heading that way too, he thought.
Eating from containers had left him with just a glass that needed washing up. There was still a glassful of wine left when he pushed the cork back into the bottle. Astor had been down often enough to know the value of making things last. He also gave up his favourite things occasionally just for the added pleasure of rediscovering them.
Astor switched the television off when a string of BBC internal commercials gave way to a dire, alleged comedy programme, which started amid gales of canned laughter. He decided to postpone doing any washing up in favour of making phone calls to the sort of people who came out only at night.
By the time he got round to making more phone calls after a late start to his Tuesday morning, various versions of Pete Astor's sacking had travelled around the music circuit. Most of the people who counted seemed to know that he had been fired for being much too good, which gave him an excellent reference. Astor was not feeling much like working but he knew that it was important to be seen to be active again and working on something else after a setback.
Having nodded in the direction of re-directing his career toward profit, he decided that he deserved a listen to the bootleg on a decent sound system. Belting along a motorway and having to keep his attention outside the car in case some lunatic tried to take him out were not ideal conditions for music appreciation.
Astor fed the CD into a player in his studio and hit the Stop button to prevent it from playing immediately. He plugged his Stratocaster into a control unit and tuned it. Then he decided to cook up a little Charm to put himself into a suitably mellow frame of mind for enjoying his own brilliance.
Syd Melchior sang his silly little song to the tune of Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend. Astor found himself slipping into the opening of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony as he warmed white powder in the metal bowl of his pipe and drew in the intoxicating fumes...
Toot up your snoot.
Squirt up your snert.
Toot up your snoot.
Squirt up your snert.
Toot up your snoot.
Squirt up your snert.
Toot up your snoot.
Squirt up your snert.
It's all quite unforGETTABOOT!
TOOT UP YOUR SNOOT!
The warm rush was circulating nicely and the sprinkling of white powder was history. Astor hit the play button of the CD unit then the random button. He was part of an audience, surrounded by cheers from the eight speakers around the room, listening to his former band in the middle of their set. He picked up his guitar and joined in.
Syd sounded in exceptionally good form. The head-sets had a lot to do with that. Up on stage, surrounded by noise and trying to follow what is going out to the audience on monitors, there is a tendency for voices to go alarmingly flat or wander away from the tune. Syd in a head-set didn't have that problem. He was doing a great job. And so was the guy on lead guitar.
The sound quality of the CD was so good that Astor suspected that someone had bunged the engineers a few quid to make a recording direct from the sound mixer desk beside the stage. It was something that the bands did from time to time, just to hear in better detail what their performance actually sounded like. One, or perhaps two, good quality cassette or digital recorders plugged in to the mass of equipment would not be noticed.
Astor was well into the new track, joining in with fast and furious guitar improvisations, when he noticed the spot of bright light in his field of vision. As it grew, he could see yellow shapes and black lines. As it spread and opened out to fill his entire field of vision to the right of his nose, he saw blues and oranges and reds dispersed among the yellow triangles, squares, angular shapes of all descriptions. It was like watching the best laser light show in the world in terms of technology as it created apparently solid objects with pure light. The content was a bit lacking, thought. It was something to watch only once.
Astor had stopped playing, and the psychedelic display had filled his entire field of vision, by the time he heard a distant wolf-howl and a storm of applause. Then the pattern seemed to lose intensity and he saw a shape, dark yet non-menacing, outlined against a glowing background.
No trees were consumed by Farrago & Farrago and Henry T. Smith Productions, 10/12 SK6 4EG, UK in creating this material for Jon A. Gored. Sole © Jon A. Gored, 2001.