To clear his debts Jimmy Vale, singer of one-hit wonders The Tyrants, is asked by his manager to fake his own death. In doing so he will join Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse in “The 27 Club”, the unfortunate collection of rock stars that all died at twenty seven years of age. As the press and public wonder more and more about his disappearance Jimmy’s personal and professional lives spin increasingly out of control as he tries to come to terms with the person he has become, his tumultuous past and somehow make it beyond the age of twenty seven.
Burt was as thin as electrical wire. His teeth were twisted brown shards. His hair, fine grains of black stubble, formed a faint triangle above his forehead. In an aqua-blue dressing gown, fag burns down the front, and with bare feet, he led Jim down the hallway of his dilapidated three-storey house just out of the city centre, in Balsall Heath,.
A dog was barking somewhere out the back. Toots and the Maytals on the stereo. The sweet-sour smell of marijuana and incinerated food.
Five years ago Burt had sold Jim and Gary whizz at a mod club. They had become regular customers, then friends, and quickly moved into Burt’s house. Not long after that, to keep himself afloat between gigs, Jim began working with Burt, selling skunk and pills to a small network of promoters and musicians.
“You remember Stuart?” Burt pointed into a room on the left. A man with white dreadlocks and a ginger beard was lying, passed-out, open-mouthed and naked, amongst open pots of paint and torn-up sheets of canvas.
“You do. Fell asleep and shat himself in court.”
“What was he up for?”
“Up for? He was training to be a junior barrister.”
“Now, apart from getting high and talking new age hippy shit about the oneness of the universe, he paints. As you can see.”
They walked down the hallway into the lounge. Sitting on the low sofa was a young woman with vinyl-black hair pulled up into a ponytail, wearing an oversized white leather jacket and grey tracksuit bottoms. She looked up as they entered, sucking her cheeks in as she pulled on her cigarette. No make-up. Wrecked pale-blue eyes.
“This is Nina. Nina, Jim.”
Nina smiled at Jim coyly. She crossed her arms and rubbed her shoulders. “Hello Jim,” she said dreamily and looked down at the ashtray. Next to it lay a mirror frosted with white powder.
“She’s shy, aren’t ya! She’s Latvian, not much English… but we’re sorting that out, hey, Neen!”
Nina sniffed and rubbed her eyes. “No, Burty… well maybe a little.”
“Come on, son. Time to talk business.”
Jim followed Burt into the kitchen, under a band of burnt toast and weed smoke, through a purple door, and into his office. Burt sat down behind a wooden desk littered with unused coin bags. In the centre was a pair of brass weighing scales. Jim sat in the chair opposite and looked out of the tiny window on his left. A pitbull terrier was chained up to a metal stake. It was barking and lurching towards the fence at the bottom of the yard.
“You haven’t got a bag. You still haven’t got the money for the batch of pills I gave ya for the tour, have ya?” Burt said, his black eyes wide in their sockets.
“Eh? Hold on, Burt. Where’s the, ‘How are you? How you doing? It’s been a while?’, and then I say, ‘Well, no. Fucking awful actually.’ You know, shit like that.”
Burt leaned back from the table into his chair. He put an arm round the back of his head, nodded and pushed his bottom lip out.
“Oh, yeah. Peachy. The world is a fantastic place to live in and all that bollocks. But seriously. You ain’t got the cash, have ya, mate?”
“I’ve got it, yeah. But it’s going to take a bit of time. That’s all. That’s what I wanted to ask –”
“How long, Jim? Eh?”
“I’ve owed you money before and you’ve been fine.”
“Jim. I know what’s going on. It’s different this time, innit?”
“Nothing’s going on… What do you mean, different?”
“Your manager called me. Mr Dimpleton.” Burt cocked his head, eyes arrogant. “He said he would cut ma’ balls off if I told anyone about you being back in Brum. He also told me about you punching Gary in the face at the sound check in Nottingham. Running away. Pretending ya dead, are ya?”
Burt’s gown had fallen open, showing his xylophone-like chest. He pulled over a tin box, opened it and began to roll a spliff. “He’s not giving you any money, is he? He’s frozen any money from The Tyrants’ record sales going into your account.”
“I’ve just got to clear a few things with him first, then it’s all good. You’ll get it.”
“Clear twenty grand?”
“It’s not all me. I don’t owe twenty grand, not the exact amount, just part of that –”
“You’re out the band, you owe a shitload and you ain’t got jack, mate. That’s the truth of the matter.”
“Come on, man. You know I can get it. I helped you out in the past with deals. I got you all those support bands coming through town, all the tour crews. That’s a lot of gear, man. A lot of pills. A lot of weed.” Jim looked around the tiny room. “To be fair, since I left, I thought you would be doing better than this.”
Burt peered up wearily from his tobacco tin. “I agree, you’ve helped me out. But I wouldn’t say it equals staying at my house and never paying me rent for two years. I wouldn’t say that it all adds up to a recording contract. Who was it that loaded up the A&R man from Olympic Records with a shitload of coke? After that stint in the bogs he came out shouting that you were going to be bigger than God’s dick! You know, if it wasn’t for me you’d still be singing to one man and his whippet in the Moseley Arms, being pushed off the stage so the punters can get at the faggots and peas.”
“You may have noticed that I’m not exactly selling out Wembley at the moment.”
“That’s not my fault, mate, is it?”
Jim’s whole body became rigid, inert with anger or defeat. At that moment they felt like the same thing.
“You’re stuck, mate. F.U.C.K.E.D.,” Burt said softly, then popped the roll-up in his mouth and lit it.
“I do realise, okay? Look, you want contacts – more bands, label owners, producers, stuff like that. I can give you them. But I’m not going back to The Tyrants. Gary was trying to get me out of the band way before this. That’s it. I’m going to make a solo record. And to make it with who I want and how I want means I need cash, man. I’m supposed to have vanished off the face of the earth, so I can’t work in a pub or shop. We need to sort something out here, some type of agreement?”
The dog had stopped barking.
Burt chugged a deep one from his spliff and tapped a finger on his forehead. He studied Jim through undulating plumes of smoke, letting the silence build the pressure between them.
“Work for me. Like old times. Like when you and Gary first moved in, hustling for gigs, man, hustling for cash. Trying to stay alive.”
“I worked with you. I want to be a partner.”
“You can’t afford to be a partner at the moment, not for what I’m dealing these days.”
“Nah. You don’t deal. You’ll be dropping stuff off. You know, saving me a lot of hassle, like. I’ve taken on a lot more clients recently. And they’re good clients now. It’s not like when we first started, the odd bit of whizz here and there.”
Jim hoped not. Once, in a pub car park in Winson Green, a young woman had refused to pay for the whizz she was going to take to her other half in the prison. She held a butter knife to Jim’s throat as her baby looked on, sucking a toy car in its buggy. Jim handed the whizz over, not so much scared for his own life, but for hers and the baby, wondering what the hell would happen to her family if her husband didn’t receive his stash.
“I don’t know, Burt… For this stupid fuckin’ stunt to work, to get the music press interested, to keep Dimpy happy and for me to get back to recording songs, I can’t go wondering around town selling drugs to students. Most of them bought ‘Snitches’. They’ll know me. I’ll need to be well hidden.”
Burt stood up and sat on the desk in front of Jim.
“I do the bands, the venues. You do the more exclusive clients and stay away from that world… I wouldn’t worry about anybody recognising you anyway.”
“Hey, thanks, man.”
“Nah, geez, nah. What I mean is a lot of my clients are businessmen now. Lawyers and doctors, like… Your beard’s coming on nicely. I mean no offence, but ‘Snitches’ was a while back. You look a bit different from then, bit of a fat fucker now… Hey! Just kidding, mate. Trust me. Okay?”
Jim gave him the Vs.
“You want to sort your wardrobe out too. Dump the leather jacket and skinny jeans. You can’t play at being Iggy Pop now. You need to blend in a bit more. I’ll give you some of my old stuff.” Burt grinned. “I’ll sort you out. No one will know you from Adam, mate.”
“Just till I pay you back?”
Burt’s hand came down on Jim’s shoulder. “We say three weeks for the payback money. Then, you need personal cash?”
“Ten per cent off all following deals. For your record fund.”
Jim smiled. As long as he kept it low-key this would be the easiest and quickest escape route he could take.
“Where am I going to stay?”
“Well, Stuart has the front room. And if it all goes to plan, I should be having my girl move in soon.”
“Nina’s your girlfriend? You’re joking?”
“Ah, only rock stars can get the good-looking ones? Fuck off, Jim. Dealing gets you girls, gets you money, and you don’t have do all that travelling, pressing flesh and talking bullshit to journalists. You’re way out of favour these days, kid. You couldn’t pull a muscle.”
“So what about the loft then?” Jim said.
“I’m turning the loft into an observatory for my telescope,” Burt said, looking out of the window to the dog that was still straining towards the fence.
“The stars, mate. Everyone needs a place to escape. Reach for the stars!” He threw a hand to the ceiling and flopped his head back. “Don’t worry about accommodation; I can make you disappear. Put you up at this hotel in town I use for deals. You wouldn’t know it was even there. The owner likes coke to impress his boyfriends. He’ll let you stay there for a while then give you a discount rate or summat.”
Burt grabbed the top of Jim’s arms with a scrawny, tight grip. “This is going to be like the good old days!”
“In the centre of town, Burt?”
“Like I say, you’d hardly know it’s there.” Burt brought up the dog end of his spliff and sucked down a lungful of smoke.
“Like a black hole?”
“Like a what?” said Burt.
If you want to know more about “27” and Ryan’s other projects go to the website or join the Facebook page. “27” is published by Sidewinder Books and can be brought from Amazon.co.uk in paperback or for Kindle. It can also be purchased at Waterstones.com and all other good book sellers.