It’s the story that won’t fade. All of Dalston are talking, and now even the heads down on Stoke Newington Church Street are curious. But nobody’s spoken up about what really happened that night at Dalston’s esteemed folk hub Cafe Otter, so your very own Octogram is stepping forward. I intend to throw light and, perhaps, a dash of cold water on the whole sorry affair.
The evening caught me in good spirits, and throughout I adopted the role of jolly prankster, a veritable Robin Goodfellow prancing hither and thither and seeing merriment in all. My good friend and shadowdancer Dan Melchior was in town to cook up some blues riffs and outré extrapolations at the Otter, and had enlisted head Moan and thought-eater Russell Walker to lay down some sarcy vocals. I made it my business to attend.
I’d not been to the Otter since Jeffrey Archer’s beat happening in 2003 but the scene was much as I remembered it. A sign over the cider pump claimed ‘This Machine Kills Fascists’. An orderly queue was forming behind the walnut cake. Copies of The Wire magazine were hungrily snapped up and slipped into hemp Tesco totes. I caught up with Messrs Melchior and Walker shortly after their performance. Though the set had been well received, I grasped instantly that the pair were in foul form.
“Howdy.” Melchior growled from beneath his Stetson. Walker didn’t utter a word, glowering acidly at the disseminating crowd.
I got the lowdown over pints of apple ferment, care of the Octogram expense account. Melchior’s latest LP, 31 Farts in June had been selling in reasonable quantities but Terry Christian had reviewed it smarmily on his lifestyle blog The Mancunian Idyll.
“Three stars out of a possible five.” Dan snarled, brandishing a printout and quoting bitterly. “‘Our kid Melchior wants to cut down on his releases, like.’”
The musician fell mute at these words, and I watched with admiration as he whipped out his Motorola, thumbs flying.
Russell, I learned, was in a stink after hitting a bum note near the end of Blue Yodel No. 2. His trademark falsetto had soared over a 16 bar break before straining into B flat territory. A muttered excuse about ‘city smog’ was only met with raised eyebrows from the deck chairs.
I let my friends’ woes dangle in the scented air, regarding the sorry pair in the half-light of a lava lamp as I fashioned origami pigs from the Hackney Gazette. Finally I took a coin from my pocket, tossed it in the air and caught it in the palm of my hand.
“Heads I win,” I asserted, deadpanning for all the world and his brother, “tails you lose.”
My compadres’ faces instantly cracked into fits of giggles, their wide eyes expressing at once joy and awe. While they were wiping their eyes I back-flipped from my chair, produced a tin whistle and the three of us led the Otter’s stunned customers in an impromptu conga over the hay-strewn floor.
It was into these frivolities that the troubadour made his entrance: Ambient Ken, the best damn picker in Totteridge and Whetstone and tonight’s headline act. He stood, filling the doorway, a dainty lute clutched in his folky claw. The wind blew the troubadour inside, dishevelling the fringes as the man took to the stage. The audience eagerly took to their seats.
Audiophiles all, our unholy trinity shuffled to the back of the crowd, the better to enjoy the microfluctuations in tone afforded by the venue’s dusty corners. It was at this moment, friends, that I confess my judgement erred. In my excitement, I noisily unwrapped a polo mint and, without a thought for the wider ramifications, placed the crunchable upon my tongue. I might just as well have thrown a grenade at the frigging stage. Ambient Ken scowled, his concentration broken, and he stumbled over a D-minor triad. The proprietor intervened, and your heroes were promptly-and quite rightly-delivered to the cold Dalston pavement.
It falls to the outcasts of this messed up, zany world to muster their own jollies. So it was with the three of us: a bohemian triptych at large on the Dalston street, fire in our eyes and cloudy cider in our bellies, vivaciously re-enacting scenes from Blackadder to an uncomprehending world. Melchior was sprawled on his back, performing comic death throes, his legs twitching in the air, Walker and I leaping from behind a Grundon bin to deliver a gleeful “Don’t drink the wine!” when Cafe Otter’s volunteer storm troopers caught my eye. I’d seen this dapper young pair at work before. Their righteous threads and commune ethics were deceptive: They were hardnuts, pure and simple. They glared, goon-like through each of the Otter’s glass doors, fingers thrust viciously to their lips and eyes spitting daggers through the carbon footprint-chomping single pane. I blew the pair a kiss and furnished them with a spirited “You have a woman’s hands, me lord!”
This was too rich a caveat for this little duo of do-gooders: The doors flew open and the pair marched upon us.
“Silence!” the first of them commanded; a teenage boy with scarf flowing and blond mop delicately tousled.
“Desist in your activities immediately!” the other agreed, a severe young women in a black felt cat suit.
“Chill dudes.” I responded, draping an arm over each of them. “Room for two more. Here Blondie, you be Baldrick. Young lady you can have a bash at Nursie if you like.”
“I do not ‘like’, Octogram, impertinent fool.” she shot back. “Consider yourself barred from this general area. Cafe Otter permits no sound on the Dalston streets during live performances. Look, see!”
She indicated the Otter’s thin glass front. In the darkness beyond, the clientele glowered our way. Over their heads Ambient Ken strummed desperately, trying to recapture the crowd’s attention.
Blondie came forth now, clapping his hands in my face.
“May I congratulate you, Signor Octogram.” he smarmed. “The floor is yours. You have our undivided attention, which after all is precisely what you came here for.”
“Liar!” Walked screamed, brotherhood fogging his senses. The home counties poet launched himself upon the teen, grabbing the ends of his scarf and attempting to choke the boy.
“Steady now.” I chimed in my friend’s ear, easing his fists from the soft fabric of the boy’s neckerchief. To the Otterites I declared,
“You have exceeded yourselves. The double doors behind you demark the edge of your folk kingdom. We very holiest of fools are beyond your jurisdiction. We shall tarry at our leisure.
Blondie gasped in revulsion.
“You dare to quibble over legality? In the presence of a folk saint?”
“Your saint,” Walker countered, stepping forward, “might want to invest in some sort of amplification, lest the whole of London choose not to lie silent for his benefit.”
Cat Suit bit her knuckle at the very suggestion.
“I’d like to hear you say that to his face.” Blondie chuckled smugly.
Walker shrugged and raised his voice.
“Here Ken! Why don’t you get yourself an amp!”
“No!” the two protested, urgently waving their hands in the air, blocking off the doorway as though to prevent the sound waves reaching Ambient Ken’s delicate ears.
“Have you no shame at all?” Cat Suit begged, her mouth twisting with contempt.
“Not really.” Walker chuckled. “This is the biggest crock since Pete Seeger swung his axe at Newport.”
“Ugh!” the pair groaned reflexively at Walker’s invocation of the hallowed fest. Unable to contend with the sacrilege, the beatnik bouncers retreated to the nurturing safety of the Otter’s glass walls.
Octogram and Walker eyeballed one another, mirroring wry smiles.
“You mad, crazy bastard, Octogram.” my old sparring partner opined.
“Right back at ya, asshole.” I assured him.
“Well that was all fine sport.” Melchior’s voice rang out. We looked instantly about us. Here he was, stepping out from the concealment of a lamppost. “But now muggings here has got to go back in and rescue Deidre.”
“Deidre?” I quizzed.
Melchior nodded dolefully.
“My axe.” he said.
We couldn’t let our man go in on his own: We just don’t play that way. Fortunately, Dan was wearing the full length leather raincoat that had become something of a trademark for him and, after some rearrangements, we contrived to enter as one singular body, Walker and myself concealed beneath his wings. Secreted in this fashion I was astounded to inspect, by torchlight, an array of pockets within the lining of the Melchior Mac; each one containing an audio cassette of as-yet unreleased material. I swooned as I read the hand-scrawled titles in this library of treasures: Teapot Dilemma in D, The Adventure That is Yeast, Sebastian Populace, The Mike Patton Sessions and more. Forgetting for a moment our predicament I unboxed Groin Strain Caviar and slipped it into my walkman.
“Snap out of it!” Walker scolded, yanking the headphones from my head. “The shit’s going down.”
Blinking back to the hear-and-now I cupped my ear to the leather wall.
“Give him his electric monstrosity,” Ambient Ken was pontificating, “And eject this blues heretic from the building.”
“What about my money?” Dan objected.
“It’s being donated,” Ambient Ken stated, “to the Folk Fund.”
“This is bullshit!” Walker fumed, and in a flash of leather we burst from our hiding place.
“Give him his fucking money Ken,” I screamed, “you fucking finger picking finger fucker.”
“Here, try saying that after a few sherberts.” Russell chortled, snatching the pretty green from Ken’s hand.
The proprietor minced toward us at that point, his tone suddenly desperate. I am speculating, but it appears likely he realised at this moment that he was dealing with actual members of the rock band Pheromoans.
“I beg you!” he wailed. “This can all be ironed out. Just give me a minute of your time.”
“Forget about it, chum.” I told him. “I’m talking to the boys from the council about this one. Your ass is going down.”
“On what grounds?” the man squealed indignantly.
“The fact is,” I sighed, “Cafe Otter just ain’t folk.”
And there we have it, Octopeeps. A few jujitsu moves for good measure and we were back on Highway 61, bruised but unbeaten. Our song will go on, untarnished though unheeded by the plebs and clowns that cross our hobo path. But if you happen to hear old Ambient Ken plugging in anytime soon, do the poor chap a favour: don’t tell anyone you know the hows and the whys and the where-to-fores.
Mad Headed Octogram
El Octogrammus, the Mad Headed One.