‘So what have you been doing all these years,’ I asked, delighted that she had even remembered me.
‘I died,’ she said, with show-stopping intensity.
We had come to the conclusion that our band needed a lead singer. None of us could sing well enough to fill that role; me especially. We needed a front man: a Mick Jagger or a Robert Plant. So we advertised; and we got the usual parade of tuneless wonders who were either too spaced out to know what day it was or thought the sun shone out of their bass clefs. And then there was Ellie: a girl.
‘Who has a chick for a lead singer, man?’ It was still the Sixties.
‘Aretha’s a girl?’ I pointed out.
‘Aretha didn’t have a band.’
‘Okay, Janis, then; with Big Brother. Why can’t we at least give this Ellie a try?’ I had an ulterior motive. ‘What do we have to lose?’ I wanted to check this Ellie out. I wasn’t saying we should hire her. Just check her out.
At the time, I had a day gig working in a government office; and all the guys there were so straight, man: suits, shirts, ties, shiny shoes and slicked-down hair. You know what I mean? It was like they were trying to be invisible. Their idea of a wild party was to crack open a packet of wine gums and loosen their ties. And because I was young, and naïve and a migrant, they felt it their duty to warn me against going to this pub down by the docks, the Royal Ascot, because it was “full of long haired homosexuals and drug addicts.” So I arranged to meet Ellie in the Ascot after work figuring that if she wasn’t freaked out by the place, she’d be okay gigging with us.
I got to the Ascot bang on time. I like to be punctual. It’s my one character flaw. I checked out the public bar but it was full of guys who looked like they hadn’t moved since the bar opened. Nor did I have any luck in the saloon bar; which left only the piano room, upstairs, unexplored. Now, I call it the piano room because it didn’t actually have a bar. If you wanted drinks, you had to buy them in the saloon and carry them up the flight of stairs to this little room with a few tables and chairs and an old honky tonk piano over by the window. This was where the hard core guys drank; where the deals were made; where you didn’t want to be if there was trouble because the only way in or out was the stairs and they were steep and narrow. But I could already hear music coming from the room so I thought I’d better check it out, just in case this Ellie had wandered in there by mistake.
As I climbed the stairs, the music grew louder: a pumping stride piano like Tatum used to play. There were about twenty guys in the room. All male, all bopping and weaving to the beat, their shoulders twisting, their heads bobbing up and down in positive affirmation of the playing. And when I cut my way through the crowd, there, at the piano, was a raven haired rock chick, maybe 17 years old, banging those keys like she was possessed.
‘Ellie?’ I shouted over the waves of sound.
She looked round at me and smiled without missing a note. Then she drew a thumb down white keys, all eighty-eight of them, and punctuated the figure with a double-handed roll on the low register that sounded like thunder coming.
I didn’t think we were going to get out of there. When twenty long-haired guys with drug convictions want more piano they generally get more piano; but Ellie just smiled sweetly at them and said: ‘I gotta go, boys. Thanks for the drink,’ and they all seemed to melt into house pets.
At that moment, I didn’t care whether or not Ellie could sing. I just wanted her in the band. I wanted her so bad that I would have tied the other guys down and forced them to give their approval, just for her to be there.
On the way to her audition with us, I learned that she not only played piano but guitar and flute and a bunch of other instruments. She also told me that her father was some orchestral conductor and her mother sang opera. Did they mind that she was auditioning to sing in a rock band? No. And I got the impression that as far as Ellie was concerned, it wouldn’t have mattered even if they had. And as it turned out, Ellie was an amazing singer. Her voice was both pure and raw. Her range was incredible. Not as incredible as Yma Sumac, maybe; but still incredible. And she had soul of a kind that really oughtn’t to have been coming out of the mouth of a dainty little white girl with classical training.
After the audition we told her that we’d discuss it and let her know the following day; because that’s what we thought people in music management did; but there was absolutely no doubt in anyone’s mind that we wanted her in the band. The only thing that we had to discuss, really, was how we should handle that fact that she was a girl; and a pretty hot one at that. A hot chick fronting the band was a good thing. It would pull in the crowds, we thought. But how should we, as her fellow band members, relate to her? That was the question.
As far as the drummer and base player were concerned, it wasn’t a problem. After all, they were just a drummer and a base player. They were, like, in the special needs class. But Lukas, the rhythm guitarist: that was a different story. Because I had originally advocated auditioning Ellie, and had seen her first and had brought her to the audition, I felt that I had first rights to ask her out. But Lukas had always been the ladies man. Who knows why? He was dumb as a rake; and had a face like a deflated beach ball; but there was just something about him that girls fell for; something that I didn’t have. So in the end, we decided to make a pact: none of us would hit on Ellie as long as she was in the band. Of course, our unanimous infatuation with her ignored any possibility that she might think we were a bunch of losers and not want to join our band anyway.
But Ellie didn’t think that. She joined. We practised. We played some gigs. And we rocked. But before long I began to suspect that Lukas wasn’t exactly honouring his part in the pact. You see, Lukas was older, and he had a van, and he would take all of us home after practise and after gigs, and he always engineered it that he dropped Ellie off last. Whether there was anything more to it than that was never confirmed; but the tension in the band grew, and spilled over into our playing and to other aspects of our lives until it reached a point where the situation became untenable and the band broke up.
For more than a decade after that, I neither saw nor heard from Ellie. I met Lukas once, by chance, on the street; and he told me that he was now an acupuncturist in a Hippie commune on the north coast. Not exactly a logical progression, one would have thought, from his previous calling as a panel-beater in a car repair shop. I made a point of not asking him for a free session.
I changed jobs a couple of times; travelled a bit; lost interest in playing in bands and replaced it with an interest in photography, which gradually broadened into an interest in photojournalism. Then one day, when I was working for a newspaper, a story crossed my desk that instantly grabbed my attention. It was the photograph that drew me in first. She looked older, a little gaunt perhaps, but it was unmistakably her – Ellie – although now she was calling herself Elanora. With a strange hunger, I turned to the accompanying story, expecting to find that she had hit the big time, or was being identified as the next big thing in music; but the story turned out not to be about music at all – it was about witchcraft – and our little Ellie was now the leader of a coven of witches living in an ultra-bohemian part of the city.
My first reaction was to contact the journalist who’d written the story, get her details, call her up, meet her, talk to her…but she was a witch. What was I thinking? For a couple of days, I wrestled with the conflict: to contact her, or not. And in the end, it seemed like doing nothing was the preferable course of action.
More years passed, and once again Ellie or Elanora, slipped out of my consciousness, replaced by other priorities, other people, other objectives. My interest in photography waned; but I was still writing, still searching for my niche. Then, one day, I noticed an advertisement, in the entertainment section of the newspaper, for a gig in an inner-city pub featuring one Elanora on guitar and vocals. There was no photo this time but something told me that it was her. It was as if I was hearing her calling me. So, after all those years, I found myself, older now, different in so many ways, in a different pub, looking for Ellie again.
The lounge bar was dark, and crowded, with little tables and tall barstools dotted around; but most of the patrons were standing. At the far side of the room there was a small, low stage, empty, waiting for the artist to appear. I bought a drink and took up a position, not too close to the stage that I’d be in the performer’s face, but not so far away as she wouldn’t be able to see me, and waited. I was already imagining a scenario where she’d see me in the crowd, not recognising me at first, then the gradual realisation of who I was would invade her consciousness and she’d end the song, and end the set, and make her way through the crowd, ignoring everyone else, until we were standing face-to-face in joyous reunion. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here’s what really happened. Ellie walked out to mild applause, guitar in hand, smiling, acknowledging a couple of people in the audience. She plugged the sound cable into her instrument and perched herself on a stool, centre stage. I was transfixed. She looked older, even older than in the photograph I’d seen; but it was unmistakably her. And when she started to sing, even if there had been the tiniest of doubts in my mind, it was expelled as soon as that first note hit the air. ‘Jesus, Ellie,’ I thought. ‘We really blew it, didn’t we?’
Ellie didn’t see me from the stage, as I had imagined she might. And when she finished her set, she made her way to the bar where the barman poured her a large glass of water. A group of people, mainly guys, crowded round her, eager to express their admiration, wanting to buy her drinks, which she graciously declined. I was outnumbered. I thought of just leaving. Maybe she wouldn’t remember me; and that would be embarrassing; but a stronger feeling made me stay, hovering in the background, feeling that, if we were going to talk, the opportunity would present itself. Fate would make it happen.
After about ten minutes, Ellie stood up and broke free from her group of admirers. My heart stopped. I felt that the moment of truth was about to arrive. As I had watched her, surrounded by fans, I had been thinking of what to say to her, if the opportunity should arise. After dismissing most of the ideas that had occurred to me as banal and clichéd, I’d had a flash of inspiration and I devised a question that only someone who had known her well, a long time ago, would know to ask. And then, as if on queue, as she sidled through the crowd, she was there right in front of me, brushing past.
I made my gambit and she stopped suddenly, stared at me, arrested by my question, frowning as though she thought she must have misheard; then slowly, her frown transformed itself into a look of cautious recognition tempered by disbelief, and she said my name as a question.
‘Yes,’ I said, and she shrieked and we embraced and the conversation gushed like an unstoppable torrent.
‘You were pretty wild in those days,’ she reminisced, once the initial euphoria of meeting each other again had settled into an acceptance that this was really happening; and while I knew it wasn’t so, that I had been a pretty ordinary kid just like so many others, with unplanned dreams and expectations that had slipped, like sand, through my fingers leaving me with a handful of memories and a heart full of regrets, I felt flattered to be at least remembered as having had a youthful wild side; especially since the recollection was that of a witch.
And we talked, joyfully, of our shared past until it was time for her to begin her next set.
‘So what have you been doing all these years,’ I asked, desperate to prolong the conversation, not wanting it to end so soon after finding her again.
She looked directly at me, deep into me, and said, with show-stopping intensity: ‘I died.’
I had an inkling of what she was talking about: about her becoming a witch. But I was still taken aback. I didn’t immediately know how to respond to that: whether to be flippant or to take it seriously. And maybe she already knew what I was thinking; that her supernatural powers had already read my mind. But she continued to stare at me with those dark, penetrating eyes of hers, waiting for a response; expecting a response; trying, it seemed, to provoke a response.
Finally, I nodded slowly, and tried to smile, although it must have come across as the saddest of all smiles, and said softly to her:
‘Yeah. I think a piece of me died too, Ellie.’