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Monday, November 03, 2003

Song for a Summer Day
C D YORK 2003


Alan said he would pay for the car rental and navigate the route. An hour, he said, should be enough time to reach the church. On the way he reminisced. We were so young then, he said. Four musicians, playing rock and roll, gigs in England and on across the Channel to Holland and Germany and Belgium. Wild days. Guitars and booze and women who sized us up and issued invitations with their eyes. Flash suits, string ties, hair like Elvis’s. Studio recordings, the top ten, once, for a week. But we were lucky, ah yes, though we didn’t see it then. We were lucky. The big business didn’t suck us in; we were not the star material that they wanted. Four guys from East Anglia, small time stuff. The Liverpool set had it all over us. But what a time we had. And the rest of them, the stars: they made money, yes, but most of them are dead now. Drugs, overdoses. That’s what money and fame buy. It’s the music biz. We were lucky.

He sat in the front passenger seat, interjecting ‘turn left’, ‘turn right’, only at the very moment it was required. I half listened. I’d already heard the story unravel over the past two days and tried to concentrate on staying in the correct lane and shifting gears. Alan smelled of fragrance and smoke. He wore black which suited his almost-white, slicked-back hair. And no doubt Stephen would be dressed in black too. It was Stephen we were going to see.

The journey took more time than we’d planned. The village church, in a little place on the south coast east of Fowey, spilled people out into the churchyard. Its doors were all propped open so that those outside could hear the service. Under the cloud-free sun, under the canopies of old trees, among the stones, we strained to hear the eulogy. Alan became agitated and walked away. He sought a quiet place around the back of the church where he could smoke a joint and weep if he wanted to. Eventually I saw him lope into sight and when he was close enough, I eased him through the crowd at the side door until he was seen by the widow and drawn in. A track from the band’s record album was played at the proper loud volume and then the coffin was carried to a waiting hearse.

It’s just a mile that way, Alan said, as we stood with the crowd from the emptying church. We would go on with the others to the cemetery. But first, behind the hearse, half a dozen uniformed musicians organized themselves. At their head was a man Alan once knew: John wore a black frock coat and a black bowler hat; he popped open a black umbrella and held it high. His feet began to shuffle and the tuba, percussion, trumpet and clarinet men tuned up.

Into that English summer day came the sound of New Orleans’ funeral jazz. A Closer Walk With Thee. And John, thin as a dressed skeleton, arced his chin, lifted his feet, twirled and played the umbrella as though it was an exotic instrument or a king’s sceptre. I thought it was death itself dancing. We all found our places in the parade and set out, mimicking the slow pace of hearse, John and tuba notes, to flow down the narrow street of the Cornish village. A spirit grew and hovered above us. The tempo of the songs went slower, faster. Saints Go Marching In. Lay My Burden Down. Lord, Lord, Lord. Until we arrived at the place itself. And they lowered Stephen into a spot on the crest of a sweeping hill that rolled on down to fields framed with hedgerows and dotted with sheep, to the saturated blue of the English Channel. I imagined that perfection is an hour in that place, surrounded with people who care about you, serenaded with a brass band, danced to the grave by a man with a black umbrella.

By this time, Alan had become less morose. He greeted people he’d not seen for decades and talked about the old days when four young men had lived life. His hands became animated, he smiled and glowed. And on the way to the wake, he said to me: I’m the lucky one. Stephen was younger than I am. A few years left in me yet. The music biz didn’t get me, no.

The band's album, yellowed, rests on a shelf in his sitting room under cover of dust and once a month or so he plays bass guitar with Pete Berryman's Quartet and rolls a few joints with the boys.