It was raining on the day of my brother’s funeral, but thousands, mostly women, lined the streets as we rode past. I spotted a banner that read “We love you, Nick.” It was probably a leftover from Glastonbury ’92.
The rabble that crammed themselves into the chapel at Springwood Crematorium all laid claim to some degree of celebrity status. Lyra Mortenson, lead singer with the girl Goth band Sinisister, led the funeral procession. She was Nick’s current girlfriend. Well, she was, until the second week of the new millennium, when his Ferrari Modena lost an argument with a forty-ton juggernaut on his way home to Liverpool. Lyra’s face was a white mask; her eye make-up, lipstick, and laminated nails were as black as the see-through lace creation not quite obscuring her bra and suspenders. The only flash of colour was her purple hair. She looked like she belonged in the coffin with Nick. Nice boots, though.
Tim Redding, Nick’s manager, closest friend, and parasite, strutted like a priest on a sacrificial altar and delivered an oration punctuated by his own sobs and subdued wailing from the assembled bereaved. “We all loved Nick and he loved us. He found happiness with a very special lady.” He inclined his head in Lyra’s direction and she howled right on cue. “He made a commitment to his dying mother to take care of his younger brother, Jonathan.” Heads turned towards me, but Tim wouldn’t meet my eyes. He talked of his role in Nick’s life. “We worked hard and we played hard. When we formed our own recording company, Jaybird, we took on the music business and we won.” He also made a fortune out of Nick’s talent, but he didn’t mention that. He was going for the climax now. “We celebrated the millennium together in London. He was kind of introspective, but it took a lot of us like that, right?” He let his voice tremble, and he rubbed his eyes with the heel of his hand. “A week later he told me he was going home. He hugged me, got in his car, and drove away. I never saw him again. He was my friend. I miss him.”
Pass the sick bucket.
The curtains closed around the oak and mahogany casket to the accompaniment of Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” and the wailing grew in volume. I cried too, but for myself, not for Nick. Since the day he morphed from Nicholas James Carter into a teenage Rock God, I’d lived in his shadow. I was no longer Jon Carter, shit-hot car mechanic and resident singer every Saturday night at the Canyon Club; I was Nick Jay’s brother: a non-person in my own right.
“Are you okay, Jon?” I’d recognise that velvet voice if it were drowning in the keening of a thousand banshees.
“Hello Stephanie.” I crumpled my handkerchief and stuck it back in my pocket. “I might have known you’d be here for Nick.”
“I was hoping to see you,” she said. “Are you sure you’re okay?” It had been three years, but she looked no older, a little thinner, maybe, and her eyes looked tired.
“Why wouldn’t I be? It’s not as if we were close.”
She took a breath as if she intended to say more then changed her mind. Delving into her shoulder bag she pulled out a miniature diary with a pen held in a pocket along the spine. She tore out a page, scribbled on it, and passed it to me. “Here’s my phone number. If you ever want to talk, call me.” I folded the paper and put it in my pocket with the damp handkerchief. When I looked up, she was gone.
Tim had booked the banquet suite at the Chester Grosvenor five star hotel for the wake. It probably cost as much as I earned in a year and I was doing more than okay. A lot of alcohol was consumed, much of it by me. I looked around for Steph. She wasn’t there. I would have been surprised if she had been. The rest of the faces were blurred; the voices were too loud. I didn’t want to be there, but I didn’t want to go home.
Tim had put a chauffeur-driven Mercedes at my disposal, so I was delivered to my doorstep at three o’clock the following morning. It was still raining.
I took off my funeral suit, hung it in the wardrobe to await another death, and still wearing my boxer shorts and socks, I collapsed on the bed.
“How was the wake?” Nick said. He’d not spoken to me in years, but since he died I couldn’t shut him up.
“A circus,” I said. “The usual poseurs turned up, paid you a lot of compliments they didn’t mean, got drunk, found bed-mates for the night, and went home.”
“Was Steph there?”
My head felt like Keith Moon’s ghost was playing a solo in it, and I had no wish to engage Nick Jay’s ghost in conversation about the woman I still loved, but I didn’t have a ghost of a chance of getting rid of either Nick or Keith. “She was at the crem, but she didn’t show up for the misery-fest.”
“Did she speak to you?”
“It’s more than you deserve.”
“Look, Nicky, I need sleep to give me strength to face tomorrow’s hangover. I know you’re a figment of my imagination, so shut up. Okay?”
“Okay, but if I’m a figment of your imagination, I can’t say anything you don’t think first, can I?” I let him have the last word.
Nick had left instructions with his solicitor about the disposal of his ashes when he went to join that “Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Band in the Sky.” Pass the sick-bucket again. They were to be given to me. I was to scatter them on the cast iron shore: the banks of the Mersey, south of the city, where the rust from dead ships turned the sand red. We used to play on the cazzy when we were kids. When Lyra was told, she sulked. She’d had Glastonbury Tor in mind, but there was nothing she could do about it. Just as well. One of these days the amount of human ash on the Tor will cause a landslide.
She was at the funeral director’s with a crowd of hangers-on when I picked up the urn. “Some friends wanna be there for me, yeah? That’s well nice, innit?”
“Well nice,” I said. I recognised the one with the nose ring. He’d “been there” for her at the wake, with his tongue down her throat. A cluster of mourners from Nick’s fan club wore matching tee shirts bearing the logo “The Jaybird still sings.” They carried flowers. One joker carried a guitar. I stifled a groan. The paparazzi and a BBC news team advanced on us with cameras and microphones. I mumbled platitudes and turned my more appealing profile towards them. Morticia-in-Boots did her walking-dead act and said nothing.
We made our way to the cazzy and I upturned the urn on the shoreline. A gust of wind flung a cloud of my brother’s dust back into my face. I coughed. The joker with the guitar strummed Nick’s first hit from 1987, “Watch me Fly,” and the fans tossed their flowers into the river as they sang along:
“Let me kick the earth from off my feet.
Let me feel the sweet
pain of dying. Let me die
Break my chain. Watch me fly.”
In the couple of years prior to Nick’s death, Robbie Williams, Craig David and Ronan Keating had nudged him out of the charts, but dying proved to be a wise career move. An assortment of rejected demo tracks was exhumed from Jaybird’s basement and marketed as a double CD set, Nick Jay, The Heritage: The Jaybird Sings. It was a posthumous hit. His back catalogue was re-released, and he became a cult figure for a new generation.
While Nick was flying again, the fan club turned its attention to me. I was invited to sing at their reunions and at the charity events they organised around the country in his memory.
“You’d better lose weight,” Nick said. “The women like their Rock Gods thin.”
“What about Meatloaf?”
“If you could sing like Meatloaf, you’d get away with a burger gut, but you can’t, so you won’t. Lose the weight.”
Nick Jay tribute acts were springing up like April dandelions: kids who looked and sounded like Nick, eager to have their moment. They were queuing up to do the charity gigs for no payment except the privilege of strutting on stage for an audience who would love them for the sake of their idol. They loved me more because I had his DNA.
Tim Redding would show up, donate something to the raffle, and keep his eyes open for the next neck to be bitten and sucked. “I’ve got something for you, Jon,” he said at one such bash in Bournemouth. He handed me a photograph of Nick and me, when he was sixteen and I was fourteen, with our arms around each other. “It was among Nick’s things. I thought you might want it.”
“That was good of you, Tim,” I said. “Thanks.” Mum had taken that photo just after Dad left us. Good riddance. There was just the three of us then, and we were happy.
One of the perks of my late blossoming music career was a surfeit of female attention. That night, however, I chose to go back to my hotel alone. I lay in bed and looked at the picture – the only one I had of my brother. “I dumped all Mum’s photos of you after she died,” I told Nick.
“Your face was everywhere: on CDs, posters, magazine covers. I was sick of looking at it.”
“You hated me, didn’t you? I did my best for you though, bought you the garage, gave you a head start.”
“You provided the cash, okay, but I did the work. I built up the business, branched out into two more garages. That was me, not you.”
“You did well, Jonny.”
“I could sit back and let the money roll in, but I still do a few hours a week, get my hands dirty fixing gear boxes and dodgy brakes. It keeps the lads on their toes, not knowing when I’ll show up.” No doubt that was true, but there was another reason why I kept doing it that I’d never understood until now. It gave me the satisfaction of doing something that Nick couldn’t do better.
To mark Nick’s second anniversary Tim put together a memorial concert at the Liverpool Empire. The current crop offered their services: Will Young, Geri Halliwell, Gareth Gates, and Sinisister. Sir Paul McCartney agreed to top the bill. I’d close the first half and the spot before me would be the latest wannabe Nick: a kid calling himself Jay Nichols. Cute, yeah?
When the kid sidled on stage, caressed the microphone stand, and growled, “Let me kick the earth from off my feet,” the audience went berserk. He looked and sounded more like Nick than Nick. They stamped and roared through Nick’s early repertoire, and when he had them where he wanted them, he changed tack and said he’d like to do a couple of his own songs. A switch had flicked. He no longer looked or sounded like Nick. He gave them something fresh. They were ready for it and they loved him even more. I turned to Tim, who stood behind me in the wings. He was grinning, waiting to pounce, drawing up a contract in his Dracula mind.
I got on stage after the new Jaybird had done two encores, but I knew I was wasting my time. It was over. I finished my set to polite, barely adequate, applause, and as the curtain fell for the interval there were cries of “We want Jay” from the auditorium. Even Sir Macca was in trouble tonight.
I asked Nick, “What’s he got that I haven’t?”
“He’s younger than you.”
“He’s younger than you, too.”
“Yeah, but I’m dead. That gives me the advantage. One day I’ll be younger than him.”
“Unless he splatters himself all over the M6, like you did.”
“Maybe he’ll get lucky and won’t have to.”
“Did you do it on purpose, Nicky?”
“What do you think? I’m just a figment of your imagination, remember?”
“Why would you? You had everything you wanted.”
“Except Stephanie. You had her and it drove me crazy. That’s why I stayed out of your life. Why did you let her go, Jonny?”
“I was pissed off being second best. It was you she loved, not me.” I was shaking. Years of anguish and envy had left me empty of everything else. “She only turned to me for consolation while you were off your head and screwing for England.”
“You’re a bloody fool,” he said. “The women and the drugs were my consolation. Steph didn’t want me. She fell in love with Nick Jay, but she found out he wasn’t real. He was a fantasy for public consumption. Nicky Carter died the day Nick Jay was invented.” I knew what he was going to say next because Steph had told me all this and I hadn’t believed her. “She wanted a real man, Jonny. It was you she loved, and if you still love her, you’d better tell her before it’s too late.”
Next morning I showered, shaved, and put on the funeral suit. It didn’t fit so snug since I’d taken Nick’s advice and lost weight.
I drove to the cazzy to look for the spot where we’d walked across the sand and scattered the ashes. I found it easily enough. The fans had paid for a memorial bench to be placed on the prom. There was a brass plaque fastened to the back of the seat:
“In celebration of the life of Nick Jay, 1968 – 2000. His music still brightens our darkest hours.”
It wasn’t Shakespeare but it was well meant. I sat on the bench and I wept, not for myself this time but for my brother, whose life was torn away from him at nineteen, by agents, impresarios, and the Mad Music Machine. It masticated, swallowed, and regurgitated him across three lanes of motorway, a couple of months before his thirty-second birthday. I rummaged in my pocket and found a handkerchief that had been there for two years. How disgusting is that? I blew my nose, wiped my eyes, and stuffed it back. Something else was in there: a crumpled page torn from a miniature diary. I stared at Steph’s phone number. Maybe it wasn’t too late. I could call her. What did I have to lose?
Leaving the bench, I leaned on the prom railings over which we used to leapfrog when we were kids. I squinted in the sunlight shining on the Mersey. “Okay, brother,” I said aloud. “You win.”
A seagull squawked overhead and dropped its lunch on the shoulder of my funeral suit. The bastard always had to have the last word.
Pink Floyd, ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’, Wish You Were Here (1975) UK, Harvest Records.
Maureen Bowden is an ex-patriate Liverpudlian living with her musician husband on the island of Anglesey, off the coast of North Wales, where they try in vain to evade the onslaught of their children and grandchildren. She writes for fun and she has had several poems and short stories published. She loves Rock ‘n’ Roll, Shakespeare and cats.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH Dead Rocker:
Author Maureen Bowden gave us everything we look for in our published stories: good writing, a strong voice, an interesting character, and something outside the box. On top of that, she sprinkled with humor. Not only is it a rich story, but it adds a bit of commentary on the entertainment industry.