23 September 2016

Music Without Clothes

It never went on to the CV, especially when applying to be a cathedral organist and choirmaster, but the more I look back on it, the more I realise it was one of the significant experiences in my musical life.  I played the organ in a strip club.

I well recall how it came about. 

We had done a performance of Handel’s Jephtha in Llandaff Cathedral and, still on that adrenalin high musicians experience after any successful performance, a few of us decided to hit the bars of Cardiff.  Jephtha is lengthy and by the time we had got ourselves together after the performance it was well past 10.30, the hour at which Cardiff pubs used to (perhaps still do) close.  Not to be discouraged, the tenor soloist knew of a club in town which stayed open late and reckoned he could get us in.  He could, and for a while we sat at a table in a noisy night-club discussing the performance.  Gradually we dispersed around the club, and for a while I was alone at the table.  At that point a man came over to me from an adjoining table.

“Did I overhear someone say that you played the organ?” he asked.  I explained that yes, I did, and told him I was a music student whose first study was the organ.  “Would you be interested in a job?” he asked, “I am looking for an organist in my club”.  I tried to explain that I was training to be a cathedral organist and that playing in a club was beneath my dignity!  He mentioned £15 a night for three nights a week, and I began to waver.  “I don’t really know any suitable repertory”, I told him.  He asked what sort of stuff I played, and when I said “Hymns and that sort of thing”, he declared “That would be perfect!”

Thus it was that the following Friday night I found myself in the grim setting of the Upper Race Working Men’s Club on the outskirts of the mining town of Pontypool.  There was a solitary Hammond organ on stage and a few hundred miners in the hall doing some very serious drinking.  I played a few things to get used to the organ, and nobody seemed to listen, so I carried on.  Then a woman came up to me from behind the curtain on stage and said that she was ready to start.  She was dressed somewhat unconventionally for a singer, but I assumed that was what she was, and I duly asked her what she wanted me to play and whether she had the music with her.  “Just carry on what you were playing and I’ll work to that”, she told me and, as I had been playing a hymn, I pulled out a few levers and pressed a few switches, and started again in the full expectation of her joining in at some stage.  Concentrating as I was on the hymn, I didn’t see what happened next until an item of clothing appeared on the floor beside me. 

Then another.

Then another. 

A bra appeared, unfilled. 

A pair of black panties landed on the organ, with all the elegance of a squashed fly. 

And then I looked up. 

The now naked girl came over, collected her clothes, and gave me a kiss on the top of the head.  “That was lovely, dearie!” she exclaimed.  My manners obliged me to say the same to her, but my confusion never warned me of its implications, and on all of her subsequent appearances she would, at the end of the act, cock a leg up over the music stand of the organ.  I knew then what the miners faced each time they went underground to dig for coal in those long, dark passageways.  Altogether four girls stripped in rotation in four 20 minute segments, and each did so to the accompaniment of various hymns from my repertory.   

By the next night I was prepared and had learnt some more suitable (I thought) material.  But this was not liked by the girls or the miners who asked to have the hymns back.  “We love the ‘ymns”, I was told, “The lads can sing along while we strip!”  And so it proved.  Over the weeks and months, the singing got more enthusiastic and the stripping became more desultory until one girl gave up the stripping at the penultimate stage and conducted the ramshackle choir of drunk Welsh miners in a stirring rendition of Cwm Rhondda dressed just in her off-white underwear. (Thank goodness the bra was still on.  A bra-less “Busty Morgan”, a well-chosen stage-name, would have beat time in at least three different directions.) 

The requests started coming in from the floor and certain girls preferred certain hymns.  An all-round favourite was Ar hyd a nos (translated that means “All through the night”) and as “Leggy Lizzie” did her stuff to it, the entire hall would hum along like a smooth, velvet carpet.  Eventually the hymns became more popular than the strippers, but I had had enough and, despite the generous monetary rewards, after six months I decided to give it up because I was developing a kind of Brahms Syndrome.  I found it difficult to take the girls of my own age seriously, knowing that what lay under the carefully assembled glittering exterior was not likely to live up to external promises.  Instead I found myself strangely attracted to the inaccessible, unattainable women, whose careful assembled glittering exteriors held promises I would never be in a position to test.

Luckily the Brahms Syndrome was only a temporary aberration.  But a more lasting consequence of my strip club venture was the appreciation of music beyond the kind of audiences I had been groomed to expect.  Knowing that drunken Welsh miners in a run-down working men’s club got every bit as much satisfaction – possibly rather more – than a worthy bunch of civic dignitaries in serried ranks in a cathedral, or even a be-bowtied upper-middle-class elite in a plush opera house, has had a profound effect on how I approach music. 

In the world of classical music we try to reach out to new audiences, assuming that lurking out there somewhere is a vast pool of musically-illiterate people who need to have their ears opened to the glories of Mozart, Bach and co..  Perhaps, though, it is not they who need their ears opened, as us musicians who need our eyes opened to see that music is perhaps already flourishing where we least expect it.

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