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Authors: Cathi Unsworth

The Singer

BOOK: The Singer
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Cathi Unsworth
began her journalistic career at nineteen on the music paper
Sounds
. Later headhunted by
Melody Maker
, she worked there as a freelance feature writer and reviewer for several years before joining
Bizarre
magazine. She now works as a sub-editor and lives in West London.
The Not Knowing
, her first novel, was also published by Serpent’s Tail as well as her edited collection,
London
Noir
.

Praise for
The Singer

‘A cracking page-turner that feels authentic, authoritative and evocative. And it’s beautifully written. This is a bloody good book’ Val McDermid

‘Brilliantly paced, plotted and stylish crime novel from the hugely talented and highly original Cathi Unsworth’
Daily Mirror

‘If Cathi Unsworth’s searing debut novel,
The Not Knowing
, was the perfect sound check,
The
Singer
is the incredible show that everyone should be talking about…Gritty, raw with an authenticity that proves the author knows her stuff. Quite simply, Cathi Unsworth rocks’
Daily Record

‘[An] excellent slice of muso-noir…gripping’
Metro

‘This is not just essential reading, it’s also the ultimate punk noir novel’
Bizarre

‘An elegy to the punk experience…her evocation of the kohl-eyed post-punk
netherworld is faultless…A deftly plotted narrative, testimony to the skills of an author whose flair for characterisation is a triumph of empathy’
Mojo

The Singer

Cathi Unsworth

A complete catalogue record for this book can
be obtained from the British Library on request

The right of Cathi Unsworth to be identified as the author of this work has been
asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988

Copyright © 2007 Cathi Unsworth

The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real
persons, living or dead, is coincidental
and not intended by the author.

First published in this edition in 2008 by Serpent’s Tail.
First published in 2007 by Serpent’s Tail,
an imprint of Profile Books Ltd
3A Exmouth House
Pine Street
London
EC1R 0JH
website:
www.serpentstail.com

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored
in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic,
mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior
permission of the publisher.

Designed and typeset at Neuadd Bwll, Llanwrtyd Wells

ISBN
978 1 84668 640 5

Printed in Great Britain by Printed and bound in Great
Britain by Bookmarque Ltd, Croydon, Surrey

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

This Book is printed on FSC certified paper

Acknowledgements

Thanks and love to Brenda and Phil Unsworth, Yvette and Matthew Unsworth, Cath Meekin, Danny Meekin, Frances Meekin, Eva Snee, Ann Scanlon, Joe McNally, Pete Woodhead, Ken Bruen, Martyn Waites, Lydia Lunch and Marc Viaplana, Caroline Montgomery, John Williams, Pete Ayrton and all at Serpent’s Tail, Raphael Abraham, Damon Wise, Damjana and Predrag Finci, Johnny Volcano, Max Décharné,
David Peace, Ben Newbery, Lynn Taylor, Emma and Paul Murphy, Florence Halfon, Mari Mansfield, Helen and Richard Cox, Ken and Rachel Hollings, James Hollands, Roger Burton and everyone at The Horse Hospital, Michael Dillon and the company of Gerry’s, Suzy Prince, Joolz Denby, Tommy Udo, Rod Stanley, Terry Edwards, David Knight, Ruth Bayer, Karl Blake, Margaret Nichols, Claudia Woodward and Tony
Stewart and the Sounds massif for getting me backstage in the first place.

Special thanks for the punk memories of Richard Newson, The Shend and Billy Chainsaw. And the music of John Lydon and Johnny Cash.

‘The Folksinger’ Words and Music by Johnny R. Cash and Charles E. Daniels – © 1968 (Renewed) Unichappell Music Inc. (BMI) – All Rights Reserved – Lyric reproduced by kind permission of Carlin
Music Corp – London
NW1
8
BD

For Michael Meekin

Did you forget The Folksinger so soon?
And did you forget my song?

—Johnny Cash

Prologue

You can tell it’s love by the expression on their faces.

Four, maybe five hundred of them, packed together so tightly they’ve formed a kind of human sea, rolling and lapping in waves around the rim of the stage. A couple of girls sway on the shoulders of their boyfriends, loudly beseeching the white spotlight that rests on the microphone in the centre of the stage. Like most of the rest
of the assembled worshippers, these girls have long black hair, crimped into corrugated ribbons then teased upwards with the help of Boots’ Ultra-Strong Hairspray. Thick black liner magnifies their eyes against china-white foundation and slashes of red lips. The negative image of the crest of a wave, their clothes as the colour of their hair, their faces full of yearning, waiting:

For the man.

A big punk rocker with arms thick as tree trunks pushes his way to the front, elbowing and swearing, pumped up with expectation and adrenalin, the forthcoming catharsis of violence in song. His head is a black crown of soaped-up spikes, four inches long, liable to have someone’s eye out – or so he would hope. Round his neck a dog collar of spikes, ditto on his wrists,
a visual dare for anyone
to start on him. He’s ripped the sleeves off his GBH T-shirt, exposing flabby white flesh smudged with home-made blue tattoos, right down to his waistband, where a pyramid stud belt coils around the top of his tight black stretch jeans. No doubt he’s got steel toe-capped Doc Martens on his feet but you can’t see that from here. You just see the flash of his eyes as he wades through the waves to the
front, hauls his upper body up onto the stage and starts pointing, shouting abuse to the wings, where he knows they’ll make their entrance.

Waiting for the band.

Then the house lights go down and a huge roar erupts.

A vein stands out on the punk rocker’s neck as he screams his lungs out into the white noise around him, punching the air with a hammy fist.

Slowly, they coil out onto the stage.

The bass player first, a tall, willowy black man, cigarette dangling from his bottom lip, black suit and white shirt and shades, the image of Don Cherry in the Ornette Coleman free jazz days. His bass guitar is slung low around his hips, and without looking up at the crowd he stands sideways and begins to pluck the strings, a low, loping, insistent sound.

Cigarette smoke swirls across the stage
from the bassist’s lips.

The drummer has by now climbed behind his kit and begins to join in the tattoo, the undulating refrain quickly becoming hypnotic, the goth girls swaying on their boyfriends’ shoulders, waving their arms like seaweed underwater. Their mouths form the words of a name.

Of the singer.

For five long minutes the men on stage continue to make their rumble. Then from stage
left, the guitarist emerges. Compared to the bassist he is wide and solid. His round, slightly battered face peers out from under a black Homburg hat. He looks like Gene Hackman as Popeye Doyle, and he knows it, cultivates it. Broadshoudered,
bandy-legged, he wears a second-hand sixties suit like it was handmade for his personal use from Savile Row.

The guitarist faces the crowd, rocking slightly
on his heels, a flicker of amusement across his broad features, and slashes into his guitar like he’s taking a razor to soft skin. The jarring sound resonates through the crowd in a synaptic rush, wiring their collective conscious for action, and none more so than the punk rocker, who is by now attempting to get his feet onto the stage. A bouncer rushes from the darkness of the wings to push
the spiky head back down, back into the sea of arms and backcombed hair. You can see his fists rising above the heads of the others and with them his feet, and yes, he is wearing Doc Martens, eighteen holes with steel toe-caps.

Meanwhile, the guitarist, grinning now, stalks the front of the stage, shaking a violent heehaw from his strings, making a mangled blues turn red.

Punk rocker’s head
comes back up. He screams the name of the singer.

Who comes tripping out of the darkness, as if somebody’s pushed him or he’s reeling drunk. If the other guys looked the epitome of louche cool, he actually looks frightening – long long legs in black leather, a shock of black hair greased into a glistening pompadour, a T-shirt printed with a picture of a gun bearing the legend:
SMITH
&
WESSON
:
THE GREAT EQUALIZER
.

His arms are snaked with elaborate tattoos – skulls, dominos, women, dice and crosses. His eyes are wide and bulging, his lips a thin line across a taut jaw.

He lurches towards the mic stand, pulls it towards him, leans into the face of punk rocker and screams: ‘Your funeral is about to begin!’

The crowd lets rip a mutual roar and a thousand hands shoot skywards.

Clearly
delighted, punk rocker grabs hold of the singer’s T-shirt,
pulling him down into the throng. Long insect arms and legs flail above the hands of the faithful, pieces of T-shirt ripped off his back and delivered up, consecrated in hair grease and sweat. The mic has gone with the singer into the pit; at first it must have been grabbed out of his hands by the punk rocker, who shouts into it: ‘You’re
a fucking arsehole,’ in a South London accent.

By now two bouncers are wading in from the stage, trying to separate the writhing form of the singer from the mass of arms that want to keep him. He has wrestled the mic away now, words are discernible, cutting in and out of earshot, more guttural howl than singing – ‘
I am the king of this wasteland
’.

It sounds like,
‘Blackened, empty, fill my eyes…’

The bouncers now forcing him out seemingly against his will, long legs lashing, T-shirt long gone, traces of blood trickling down pasty white skin.

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