Issue One

Food




Merch-Boy



In America the band play twenty-two shows in promotion of their much-lauded third album, and I sell their T-shirts; in America I am the merch boy.

To spend any period of time with members of the band is to visit many vintage clothing stores. Here they acquire the aviator jackets, lustrous mohair sweaters and greasy drainpipe jeans, the paisley silk shirts, ’70s felted blousons and biker boots, that combined constitute their distinctive look, or rather brand. Over the course of this month-long tour the band’s singer will purchase so many fringed buckskin jackets that he will annex for their safe storage the only cupboard on the tour bus. These jackets – garments of pale butter-soft suede, of incredible fragility – will nevertheless accrue myriad tiny blemishes, discernible only to the eyes of their owner. And this, he will later tell me, has marred the entire experience of touring America, playing nightly to crowds of devoted fans, aboard a luxury Entertainer Coach.

But this is all to come.

Today, three shows into the tour, we are in San Francisco, and the singer and I examine the jackets on offer in a Haight-Ashbury vintage boutique. The singer (very tall, very attenuated, very very shy) is on the phone to his girlfriend, for the moment distracted from full inspection of the buckskin.

Then: an appalling shout. In the doorway is a man. His head is shaved and his face is enormous, muscular, sweaty, red.  The man shouts again, an awful jarring noise belonging completely to the industrial North, to Friday night at the Platinum Lounge, Doncaster, and absolutely not here, in the land of the artisanal pickle and the hand-tooled moccasin. He shouts the singer’s name.

He heads right for us, T-shirt straining at his massive neck. Up close the redness of his face is staggering. If the minotaur had the head of a man, instead of that of a bull, but was in spite of this still unquestionably the minotaur, it would be this head, this face. He grabs the singer by the arm, shouts his name again. The singer indicates that he is on the telephone and makes a meek, regretful face. The man shouts DICKHEAD and puts his arm round the singer’s neck, proposes that the singer is not actually on the phone, indeed is faking it to avoid this conversation. The singer hangs up on his girlfriend and protests his innocence. The man ignores this and demands five free tickets for the show that night.

The singer apologises, explains that this request cannot be met, and the man laughs, refusing somehow to accept this, and backs out of the shop roaring DICKHEAD as he goes, matily now; it is as if in referring to the singer in such familiar terms he is conjuring up familiarity itself, and will soon be invited to join the singer on the bus, to travel cross-country with the band in the role of best friend or mascot or both. This man is a fan of the band.

And he is not what they have in mind. The band’s idealised fan wears clothes that mirror the band’s own, is of exquisite beauty, deeply sophisticated, by night dances anachronistically to seven-inch records of fabled obscurity. This terrible man, with his awful red face and slogan T-shirt, emphatically fails to meet this ideal, but he is the real thing: it is he and others like him who have taken the band’s latest album to number four in the UK charts. And this is only the first of many similarly excruciating moments, crisis points at which the band’s carefully maintained phantasy world is abruptly and crudely punctured by contact with reality.


Later this evening, the singer, mid-song, will watch horrified from the stage as a security professional forces his way through the crowd. His destination the red-faced man, who for infractions unknown is placed in a headlock (the massive face distended now, redder still, eyes goggling, veins popping) and bundled out through the fire-door. As he is removed he proclaims his long and close association with the singer. There is no escaping the real.

After the show the band drink in celebration, and I drink to forget a shameful evening’s work. I have deployed for the first time – for the only time – an esoteric record-keeping system of my own invention, later to prove wholly incomprehensible. I have failed as a merch boy, have sold who-knows-how-many T-shirts at who-knows-what price to who-knows-how-many people, and many hours of onerous book-cooking await me.

But for now a man called Bill is looking after us. He is the kind of guy who owns, or ought to own, a classic motorcycle, and we sit drinking in the backroom of his bar. Present are the band, the drum tech and the guitar tech and the soundman, the tour manager and the shamefaced merch boy, various friends, associates and hangers-on, and a woman, attached somehow to Bill, who has decided that she and I are good friends.

‘I was hanging out with the Kennedys last week,’ she says. ‘Let me tell you, those girls are a bunch of cunts.’ And it will never be made clear which Kennedys she is talking about (the awful descendants of JFK or of Bobby, or members of some cadet branch of the clan) nor why, exactly, they are such cunts because her conversation – for now – consists entirely of this statement, repeated, and subtle variations thereon.

Some means of escape is required here, and one presents itself: I shouldn’t be, but I am, hungry. Life on tour – travelling by night, every day a new city, new people – has already induced in all of us a mild but constant feeling of panic, and in this continuous state of quasi-emergency we revert to a kind of primal gluttony. We eat whenever possible, anchor ourselves to our present location by the consumption of enormous meals, several of these a day: pizzas, burgers, reuben sandwiches, grotesque, insurmountable portions of food whose leftovers fill the tour bus’s tiny fridge.

I’m hungry and someone recommends a Mexican place: it’s round the corner on Mission, and it’s a good one (it is clear from the way this recommendation is delivered that here good means not trustworthy or hygienic, but authentic, real).

In the Mexican (yellow walls, yellow tables, yellow faces under sickly yellow light) I join the queue. The yellow menu-board lists tacos, burritos, quesadillas, tostadas, and the various meats with which these can be filled. Carne asada, al pastor, carnitas, pollo; up top all is normal, but below lies terra incognita: tongue, tripe, beef head. I reach the counter and masochistic adventurism has me ordering a quesadilla de sesos: tortilla-wrapped guacamole, melted cheese and braised cowbrains.

I sit down, eat grossly, and it is good (for
which read: real): fecundly aromatic, sticky,
slippery, slimy, oozy. The sesos themselves
have the taste, and something of the texture, of liver paté gone weird.

I return to the bar carrying a greasy paper bag of half-eaten brains. My new friend tells me about the Kennedys again, then asks me where I’m headed to next. ‘Los Angeles.’ ‘LA. Let me tell you a little something about LA. There’s something going on there. Something under the surface. There’s ...’ – her eyes narrow and she searches for the correct term – ‘... there’s an undercurrent.’ She pauses.

‘It’s the Jews.’ The Jews? ‘The Jews. The Jews run that town. They’re in charge.’ I am able to put her mind at rest, with a statement which, if not strictly true, has some small basis in fact:
‘I’m a Jew.’‘You’ll be OK then. You’re going to be OK. You’re going to do just fine.’

'Later I wonder whether she had misjudged my intentions, overestimated my clout, had me down to run for public office or to attempt a break into the entertainment industry. The possibility remains that she was perfectly aware of my role, but foresaw problems for me at the next show: the Jews of LA shutting down my operation, the Weinstein brothers and a be-yarmulke’d horde of studio executives overrunning the venue, overturning my stand, trampling the T-shirts into the carpet, as Ben Stiller, topless and screaming, beats me to a pulp.

We are released from Bill’s care, bid farewell to his anti-semitic Kennedy-hating girlfriend or wife or mistress, and ride in taxis back to our bus, to sleep in our triple-decker coffin-sized bunks, only to wake some hours later as the bus lurches sickeningly into life.

Our driver has returned. He is responsible for our safe passage around this country, and is never without his leather waistcoat and leather top hat. These he wears to signify that he is a magician, albeit of the amateur order: he is handy with a deck of cards and his wallet, when opened, emits an actual miniature fireball. But his true calling in life is not the performance of magic tricks, and certainly not the transportation of rock bands, but the rescue and rehabilitation of displaced marine mammals: stricken and ailing bottlenose dolphins, killer whales, sea otters and manatees. Work of this kind is hard to come by, so now he drives us around, sleeps odd hours in shitty motels, and his leisure time is spent watching classic war movies, or – in those states in which gambling is not illegal – throwing his pay cheque into slot machines. He is angry and sad and morbidly obese, and he hates this life. Yesterday he punched a Portland cyclist to the ground for no reason whatsoever, and he is now persona non grata; angrier and sadder still. Our driver is at the wheel, and he drives fast and dangerously.

I sleep on, fitfully, and wake hungover in Los Angeles, the domain of the Jews. Breakfast is last night's sesos, fridge-cold now; their full potency grimly realised.
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Words: Jacob Blandy
Illustrations: Baptiste Alchourroun