I love my job. Because the place everyone else goes to get away from the stresses and strains of their job is actually the place I go to work. Which means my office is basically a cabaret club. And the things that are glamorous and escapist for the punters become my routine – it’s like everything’s flipped upside down. Now I’m gigging more often I’m generally at Volupte once or twice a week, and, as always happens once something starts to become more regular, patterns and rhythms begin to establish themselves. Here are some of the ritual patterns of a typical ‘night at the office’.
There’s the meet-and-greet/soundcheck when everyone arrives dragging their gig bags on wheels, and we somehow manage to squeeze in a brief discussion about what numbers we’re going to do in between the conversations about who’s got a new coat and where it’s from (Amber Topaz wouldn’t tell me, to my frustration, even though hers is a one off anyway, so there is no danger of me turning up in a copycat green wool trench) and who’s in what state after last night and why (this conversation also includes the club staff as a rule, who are much more dedicated partygoers than us lightweight performers). Some people take the sound check more seriously than others. Amber’s is like a whole extra floorshow on top of the one she gives for the punters. Yesterday the band were running through “hot stuff”, which Beverley had just rehearsed with them, unbeknownst to Amber, and Amber jumped on the mic and started singing “I want some hot stuff baby tonight” in a broad Yorkshire accent. Beverley’s little face fell: “I’m not going to be able to sing that seriously now.” But she pulled it out of the hat for the show.
Next come the dressing room rituals, involving claiming your bit of mirror and starting work on the make up, with accompanying ‘make up chitchat’ which can cover everything from the current economic climate to who would and who wouldn’t shag Beth Ditto. There’s generally some issue or other with nipple tassels, or pasties (not pronounced the Cornish way, incidentally – I remember being sternly corrected on that point by Gwendoline Lamour). Yesterday the issue was two burlesquers with the same set of black tassels. It’s bad form for two girls to go out wearing the same pasties, apparently – so one party nobly agreed to wear her Swarovski crystal ones instead, even though they were heavier and harder to twirl. Incidentally, I also learned that Anne Summers’ black nipple tassels are very hardwearing and an excellent buy, but the pastel coloured ones are rubbish as they shed diamante – so don’t buy those (in case you were planning to).
Then there’s the arrival of the wine, which is always a high point. It’s generally delivered to the dressing room with a great flourish by the manager and met with squeals of appreciation. There’s always somebody who insists they won’t have any, then changes their mind as soon as it’s in front of them. Everybody has their foibles about what they need to drink before they go on. I have this neurotic need to down loads and loads of water which annoys the staff while they’re trying to set up because I’m always nicking water out of the jugs they’ve got ready for the customers, or helping myself from the tap behind the bar which is meant to be out of bounds to performers. Dusty Limits will only drink white wine before he performs, because red wine is too heavy and clogs him up. I’d been on the red wine before I went on the other day and I noticed it had given me purple teeth – but Dusty told me if I drank enough white wine it would cancel it out. So I did. It’s always a pleasure to discover new excuses for drinking more alcohol.
Another favourite part of the routine is the bit where you get your dinner. It’s always a lottery, what the staff food is going to be, but on a good day it’ll be something fabulous like stuffed chicken breast and dauphinois potatoes. Sometimes it can look a bit weird, like the pumpkin lasagne, but it’s important to keep an open mind until you’ve tasted it. The girls all flirt outrageously with the chefs (and so do some of the boys) so they’ll feed us extra treats. I got a secret rum cheesecake all to myself the other day. I do think that giving people free food is one of the nicest things you can do for anyone – but especially for hand-to-mouth types like musicians and performers, who will generally spend their hard earned gig money on drink rather than waste it on a proper dinner. At least somebody’s looking out for us to make sure we get a square meal.
Then comes the show itself, when you’ll step onstage and do exactly the same material you did at the last show and it will somehow weirdly come out completely different - because it’s the audience who give every show its own vibe. Another big part of the routine is a backstage discussion about the nature of the audience. Small but lively? Packed out but really flat? Into it but drunk and noisy? Polite but a bit on the quiet side? Or totally loving it? The quieter the audience, the harder work it is to win over the room – I’ve seen performers come off stage dripping with sweat and shaking from the effort of exuding energy. Sometimes you can really feel like it’s been a damp squib, only to have people from the audience coming up afterwards saying what a fantastic show it was and how they were completely blown away. They were just being blown away quietly. One of the great things about doing Pete Saunders’ Burlesque’n’Blues shows is that we do everything with a live band – singers and burlesquers alike – and there’s always something ad libbed and impromptu, or some collaboration, rather than everybody just doing their own thing one after the other. I had to get singer Buck Svizz on stage to be my stooge for my song “Sneaky” once because there wasn’t a single man in the audience (it was Saturday afternoon tea – which is hen city), and he walked onstage still eating a scone. There happened to be a line in the song that went “and what is the occasion that has merited you giving me these flowers – and cake?” and on that line Buck started pelting me with bits of scone. Brilliant. It was like the whole thing with the cake was a set up ready for that line, when he didn’t even know it was coming. This week the impromptu moment was an on-the-spot ensemble rendition of Hit The Road Jack as the finale. We had three girls around the mic belting it out, and even made up a dance routine. I’m not sure what the audience made of it - but we enjoyed ourselves.
The other ritual element to every gig is the storytelling. An old flame once told me that artists are longer lived than everyone else, not because they live more years, but because they pack more experience into their lives (he was speaking with authority as an accountant). But it’s not only the actual lived experiences us arty types pack in, it’s all the imagined ones as well – and all the ones we collect from each other in the form of pre and post gig anecdotes. These anecdotes are an integral part of the gig routine, mainly because, as a famous musician once said, performing is about 10% stage time and 90% waiting around. (This quote was offered up by the Slinktet’s guitar supremo Earl Mysterio as an anecdote to fill our own waiting around time before a gig. I now can’t remember who the famous musician was, which is a bit rubbish. Probably someone from a cool boy’s band, like The Rolling Stones or something.) The function of gig storytelling is thus to fill the waiting around percentage of the evening. The stories can be about anything, but ideally, they will reveal some behind-the-scenes secrets or describe a shocking and extreme experience that happened to either the storyteller or their ‘friend’.
My ‘day job’ is meant to be writing stories, but I have to admit that time after time my feeble attempts at anecdotage pale in comparison to those offered up by my colleagues. Pete Saunders, being slightly longer lived than the rest of us (strictly in the ‘artist’ sense outlined above, of course), has some of the best. I talked about the time I wrote off my car skidding on an oil spill, and he topped it with the time he rolled his car over three times, miraculously got out, then had to decide whether or not to risk going back to free his girlfriend from the wreckage before the car blew up (he did – because he decided the social embarrassment of leaving her in the lurch outweighed the risk of being burnt to a crisp). I had a story about going to a carol service in Armley Jail when I was a kid which Vicious Delicious topped with a story about how she used to rent a flat in the Brixton prison complex with windows overlooked by all the prison cells, and got treated to a running commentary on everything she did in her flat from the prisoners. I also enjoyed the stories about what bored musicians get up to on the big musicals, after they’ve been performing exactly the same score, note for note, for a year. The entire orchestra playing a whole show naked on the last night of the run was my favourite.
I’m back at Volupte twice next week – on Tuesday for the Lost Supper, and on Thursday for Club d’Amour – which means more treats. If I’m lucky, another chocolate cheese cake. And if I’m really lucky, some even more outrageous gig anecdotes to add to my collection. Plus, I’ll get to wear my gorgeous new black and white gown as well, which is a bit like getting to wear your wedding dress twice in one week. As jobs go, it’s not bad, is it?