Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Long train running

"Wah-wah-wah-diddle-di-dum. Wah-wah-wah-diddle-di-dum"
Ah! The funky, immortal, opening guitar riff to the Doobie Brothers song, "Long Train Running". We used to play that song in my first band (Rogues Gallery) back in Ireland, many years ago in the hippy 70s.

In those days we were a fairly tight four-piece, comprised of guitar, bass, keyboards and drums. We used to play a mixture of blues, rock 'n' roll, the Beatles, some JJ Cale, Carole King, and the odd pop tune. Plus, we all used to sing to some extent and supply harmonies.

I played keyboards and also used to play the harmonica solo in Long Train Running. It was the only song in which I played the harmonica. I wasn't Paul Butterfield or anything, or really serious about the harmonica, but still, I had learned off the solo. Long Train Running was one of the highlights of the night.

One night, we were playing at our Saturday night residency uptown at Murtagh's bar, a long, narrow, poky bar with a small stage at the very end, with a half-wall extending out from the left. Along its length there was a small bench facing the stage, with room to accommodate about ten people.

There was no room for a keyboard, for the pool table occupied that hallowed spot. However, whenever extra space was required, the table was moved off into the left corner, then a thin, wobbly piece of chipboard was ceremoniously placed on top, which band devotees, later in the night, would intuitively interpret as a convenient place to lovingly place their drinks. I would then step on top of this makeshift, undulating structure, set up my keyboard and perch comfortably behind my instrument.

Recessions were unheard of in the 70s, or at least, in living memory. On Saturday nights, the pubs were just thronged, as indeed they were on every other night. This Saturday night was no exception. The joint was jumping. The gig lasted from 9-11:30pm. We started on time and the gig was going well. By the time we took a break, a generous sampling of beer glasses and bottles was in evidence on the pool table's ledge. The weekend merriment was well under way.

The band returned after the break and as I say, things were going well, that is, until we started to play Long Train Running. The guitarist, Beatle lookalike Mike, introduced the tune, then immediately broke into "Diddle-di-dum…. Wah-wah-wah-diddle-di-dum. " (for want of a better way to represent that famous funky riff). The bass player then began to build the tune, and finally the drummer broke into the song driving the song and got the crowd going.

At the start of the song I knew the harmonica solo would soon be coming up. I usually kept the harmonica in my pocket. I went to pull it out. No harmonica. I searched all of my pockets, while still playing the piano, but came up empty. The riff continued.

The eyes of the entire band now turned to me, silently speaking the words, "John...-harmonica solo". No harmonica solo. I scrambled again to find the harmonica, looking behind and around my seat. The guitar player came across the stage and leaned over to me, "I bet you left it out in the van, he offered, contemptuously. An assenting light went off in my head, my eyes widening.

Without prior rehearsal, three tenor voices, in unison, managed to perfectly entone : "-Ya fookin' eejit! Go out to the van and get it". I never stopped to question the absurdity of this peremptory request in the situation.

"Wah-wah-wah-diddle-di-dum. Wah-wah-wah-diddle-di-dum". The riff continued unabated, but no harmonica solo obtained. Apparently, we didn't have the necessary experience to improvise around this unexpected situation.

The guitarist tossed the van's keys to me. Panicking, with no time to think, I rapidly dismounted the pool table, making my way across the narrow strip of chipboard in between the keyboard and the public's proud row of drinks. I took a few heavy strides over the deeply undulating table cover whose behavior resembled that of a trampoline.

At that point, around three and a half yards of glasses and bottles of drink were projected into the air, spraying their copious contents over a disastrously-wide radius, finally cascading and smashing onto the floor. A line of about ten serious drinkers all rapidly immediately pulled back to avoid the unsolicited shower of assorted drink I had sent their way.

I jumped down onto the floor and inched my way through the crowd out to the van amid shrieking, angry protests from our erstwhile fans, who by now had murderous intent. Leaving them behind for the moment, I pushed my way through the crowd with great difficulty, went outside, opened the van and rummaged around for the harmonica. I found it easily enough, shut the van, and returned, again edging my way through the crush.

By this time, the band had discovered true improvisation, and had been through guitar, bass, and drum solos. I jumped back up onto the chipboard, giving a repeat glass and bottle performance amid vociferous threats, and played the harmonica solo, thus saving the song and our honor.

The gig continued. We triumphantly played the last song, after which, considerable applause followed. I carefully dismounted from the pool table. It was then that I had to face the real long train. I had to stand before a summary tribunal, composed of a long line of really pissed-off, grim faces, true devotees of drink. I sheepishly proffered profuse apologies. I hoped they wouldn't all hit me up for mass alcoholic beverage replenishment, or worse, hit me.

In united fashion, without conflict, they all held up their glasses in front of me, vociferously indicating their choice of beverage. "Two pints of Carlsberg, a pint of Guinness, and a double whiskey. Three gin and tonics, three vodka and cokes. Mine's a pint of Guinness and a short. Two pints of cider, and a rum and coke. A pint of Guinness for me. Two Smithwicks, two Guinness and two glasses of port. -Oh! and an orange and two pepsis".

I was still paying off my credit card for the keyboard at the time, but it seemed that the money from the gig would be blown on drink, before even getting to raise a glass to my lips. Those were the days, my friends.

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