Chapter 1: The golden bottleneck
Perched on the edge
of my bed, I stuffed foam under the strings of my guitar, near the
bridge, to mute them so I wouldn’t wake my parents. I’d been practicing the Cross Road Blues all night, with a bottleneck that I’d
made from an old Coke bottle.
It was an easy song.
But I couldn’t get it to sound right. Sleepy though I was, I wouldn’t
put my guitar away. I had to keep at it until it was perfect. So
I played it, over and over again.
I was startled when my guitar slipped from my lap. I must have dozed off. A boy, as deeply and darkly red as the western horizon at nightfall, caught my guitar. He wore no clothes or jewelry, only a golden bottleneck on his left ring finger.
He knelt before me,
my guitar in his hands. I don’t know why I felt no fear. I wasn’t even surprised that suddenly this boy had appeared in my room. Maybe I’d
always expected this meeting to occur sooner or later.
The boy tuned my guitar
and played the blues. In spite of the foam, my guitar was crying
as if the world
was about to end. It was exactly the way I’d always wanted to be
able to play.
He laid my guitar flat on his hands and offered it back to me as if it were a tray. He looked me in the eye with unfathomably black irises. He spoke not a word. Still, I understood him. I knew the agreement I would seal if I were to play my guitar, tuned by him.
And play it I did. The Cross Road Blues cried under my fingers. The boy closed his eyes and nodded.
I was startled again
when my mother opened the door. “But, child, have you been sitting
there practicing all night again?”
2: “Hello, beautiful
It wasn’t eight o’clock yet. Broom, Tone Wheel and I had already put on our stage clothes. We stood on the sidewalk in front of the entrance of the “966 Muschi Bar”.
I shivered. It was going to be another cold night.
The rain on the awning above us sounded as if gravel was being dumped on it. Passing cars on the brick-paved road behind me sounded like snare drums, the heels of passing pedestrians like claves.
“With Sputnik those sneaky bastards got the drop on us as well.” Wardrobe, the bouncer, took a puff on his cigarette. He thumbed the silver whistle he wore on a chain around his neck. With his wide body in a black seaman’s
jersey, he stood in front of the closed red curtain. On either
side of the doorway, thighs wrapped in fishnet stockings were painted
on the wall.
“I’ve seen the nine Mercury astronauts on the color TV in the Telefunken shop-window.” Neon lights painted alternating color patterns on Broom’s face. “The Americans will beat those Russkies into space. I’m
sure of it.”
Tone Wheel shook his
head and pointed his cigarette at Broom. “The Russians are already secretly flying around up there. They’re watching us and preparing the invasion of Western Europe. High time to get out of this country and emigrate to America, while we still can.” He turned to me, put his cigarette into his mouth and spoke through his teeth: “Well,
Livewire, are you finally coming with us?”
I sighed. “You know I’m
never leaving Germany.”
“What’s holding you…”
Tone Wheel was interrupted
by the squeaking of a passing streetcar. He cringed. The tip of
his cigarette glowed. “That D-flat was off-key.” He
closed his eyes and cramped up the middle finger of his right hand
as if he were pressing down one of the black keys on his Hammond
Suddenly, I heard tires screaming. I turned with a jerk. Through the rain curtain, I saw a pearly white Cadillac Eldorado go sideways. With locked tires it slid up to the curb and came to a halt.
A red Isetta behind it could just swerve onto the streetcar track. With a horn that squeaked like a stuffed animal, the little car passed the American leviathan.
Rainwater gushed from
the body of the still rocking Cadillac. I saw the reflection of
an “Agfa Photo” neon sign in the paintwork on the side of the car. The tail lights were glowing red as if they were gun turrets on Mercury rocket tail fins. The side window wound down. “Hello, beautiful Julia,” a
male voice said to a lady on the sidewalk.
Her light blue raincoat
was tied with a belt around her slender waist. Her long, blonde
hair stuck in
wet strands to her neck and coat. She held her hands in her pockets.
Quietly she spoke: “Drive on, stupid Romeo.” Her alto voice sounded
sultry and panting. Despite the rain and street noise, I could
understand her crystal clear.
A lightning bolt cleaved
the night sky behind the ‘Bavaria, St. Pauli’ facade across the
The eight cylinders of the Cadillac growled. Its back wheels clawed for grip on the slippery bricks. A thunderclap rent the sky. The lady watched the giant car tear off down the Reeperbahn.
I heard Broom laugh. “He
must have thought he was in Herbert Street, where all the hookers
“That guy is desperate,” Tone Wheel said. “I bet he’s
going to turn right into David Street to get to Herbert Street.”
The lady’s raincoat
left her slender calves uncovered. The seams on her black stockings
were dead straight.
Suddenly I heard the tires of the Cadillac scream again.
I looked up. The Caddy’s
front wheels were turning into David Street but the car slid straight
dull, metal thud followed. The car buried itself into the side
of a VW Beetle parked on the corner. It pushed the Beetle onto
the sidewalk and flattened it against the wall of the Aladdin Theater.
The Cadillac ended up a smoking wreck. A hubcap rolled clattering
against the wall. Cops ran out of the police station next to the
The lady turned on her black stiletto heels. She kept her head down and looked at me from under her thin, sharply demarcated eyebrows. With a grin, she seemed to take stock of me.
She lifted her right
foot and swayed it back and forth on her ankle. I don’t know if
she stretched her foot or hesitated in which direction to walk.
Wiggling her hips, she
finally put one foot in front of the other and joined us under
the canopy. “Boys,
do you have some room left for a lady?”
“Always,” said Broom. “Shall
I fetch you an umbrella? Or a towel?”
She turned her head
slowly toward him and grinned. “What on earth for?”
“You’re so wet.”
“Do you mind if a girl gets wet?” She
raised her left eyebrow.
“Yes…uh, no, I mean…”
“I like being wet.” She
closed her eyes and laid her head back so the water that dripped
off the awning
fell onto her head. Water streamed down her cheeks and under the
collar of her coat. She pulled her hands from her pockets. Gold-colored,
sharp fingernails slowly brushed her wet hair back with long strokes.
“I love rainwater.” She pulled her head back from the drip and looked at me again from under those eyebrows. She opened her lips and licked her fingers. “It’s
so deliciously sweet.”
She grinned as she let
her gaze glide over our faces. She stepped closer and looked at
me again. “I’m
dying for a cigarette.”
“I don’t smoke, doll,” I said. “It’ll
give you wrinkles.”
Broom held out his packet of Gitanes filter cigarettes. Without looking away from me, she took a cigarette between thumb and forefinger of her right hand and stuck it between her lips.
I heard a match being
struck. Broom held the flame under her cigarette. With her left
hand she grabbed
hold of Broom’s wrist. She stooped to stick the tip of the cigarette
into the flame. She held my gaze as she sucked the flame toward
the cigarette. The tip glowed bright red, just as red as her lips.
I saw her breasts rise
as she filled her lungs. She took the cigarette from her mouth
and grinned. She
held her breath and kept hold of Broom’s hand.
The flame danced along
the matchstick and came ever closer to Broom’s thumb and forefinger.
I saw his fingers cramping up to try and increase the distance
to the flame.
Not until the flame
hit the nail of Broom’s forefinger did she pout to blow it out,
enveloping my face in a cloud of cigarette smoke.
She turned to Broom. “Thanks.
I really missed this.”
“Aren’t you cold?” Broom
“I’m never cold.” She took a step toward Broom and held the black lapel of his gold jacket between the thumb and forefinger of her left hand. She let her thumb slide up and down over the fabric. “Nice
“We’re just about to go to work.” Broom
pointed toward the poster of our trio in the window.
A Mercedes ambulance passed with deafening sirens and stopped at the crumpled up Cadillac. First-aid medics ran out and rolled a stretcher toward the Caddy.
“It looks like he’s really been flattened,” Tone
“High time the Reeperbahn gets an asphalt road deck,” Wardrobe said. “It’s
carnage every time it rains with the bricks on that corner.”
The lady didn’t even glance at the spectacle. “The Electro Cats trio,” she read our poster aloud. “Are
“We’re world famous in all of Germany.” Broom smiled and held out his hand. “They
call me Broom.”
“Then you must be the drummer.” The
lady ignored his outstretched hand.
Broom raised an eyebrow. “Smart
“Do you only play with
“No, but I do prefer them to sticks.” Broom grinned and pointed toward Tone Wheel. “We
call him Tone Wheel.”
“Hammond Organ?” She pressed her lips together and nodded. “Modern
instrument. A B3, like Jimmy Smith?”
Tone Wheel shook his
head. “Its bigger
brother. An A100.”
“Heavy equipment to drag along. Do you have any roadies for that?” With her left hand she pinched Tone Wheel’s right arm. She smiled and pursed her lips. “No,
you probably lift it yourself. Such a strong boy.”
“All of us help out to lift that heavy monster.” Broom pointed in my direction. “And that’s
“Livewire?” She looked at me from the corner of her eye. “So he’s
the guitarist. Is he any good?”
“Livewire is the best
jazz guitarist in the world.”
“Really?” She raised her eyebrows. “I
thought Barney Kessel was the number one in the polls.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the man from the Cadillac being lifted onto the stretcher.
Broom’s mouth fell open. “You read the jazz polls in Down Beat?” He looked at Tone Wheel and me with a wide grin. “Guys, may I introduce you to my dream girl.” He turned back to her. “What’s
She took a drag from
her cigarette. “Lora.”
Broom immediately sang
the first line of the Johnny Mercer film ballad ‘Laura’. “My dear,” he said. “Barney
Kessel has nothing on Livewire.”
“Then why are you guys playing here?” She
turned up her nose and pointed her cigarette at the posters with
pictures of scantily clad women in provocative poses on the windows
of the 966 Muschi Bar.
“This is one of the few places where we can play jazz and blues in this country,” Broom
“Why don’t you go to
Broom and Tone Wheel
laughed. Tone Wheel looked at me, pursed his lips, nodded and pointed
in Lora’s direction.
She walked between Broom
and Tone Wheel to the wall and stared at the poster ‘Girls wanted’. “Oh,
I get it. You guys are looking for me.”
She went to stand in front of Wardrobe.
He nodded, stepped aside
and held open the curtain. “Hilda,” he cried inside. “There’s a
girl here who wants to speak to the boss.”
Lora dropped her cigarette
and stepped on it with the tip of her shoe. She turned and looked
at me once
more. “See you in a minute.”
She disappeared behind the curtain.
“I saw her first,” Broom
The ambulance tore off, sirens wailing.
Chapter 3: Voice Box
in the early evening, the place stank of the Lysol that was used
to wash everything.
Even the girls reeked of it. They thought it was an effective contraceptive.
The Lysol couldn’t drive away the smell of stale cigarette smoke,
sweat and alcohol. Everything was saturated with it. My guitars,
my clothes and myself.
Nettie Page was the
first act. She stripped to ‘Peter Gunn’, the theme of the TV detective.
I threw my Fender guitar around my neck, and switched on the bridge
pickup, so it
sounded razor sharp. I plucked the opening riff. A stiletto heel
appeared from the wings. The spotlight lit up a leg wrapped in
a black fishnet stocking.
Sailors around a front table began to shout and whistle. A man at the bar gave them the evil eye. Other than that, the joint was empty.
Wearing a black trench coat and fedora, Nettie came onto the stage from behind the curtain. She danced with big hip movements, looking around as if she was being followed.
When she arrived at the middle of the podium, Tone Wheel started the theme, with all stops drawn out. The Hammond organ thundered like an earthquake. Nettie pretended to be hit by a bullet and fell onto the floor. She threw her hat into the audience, revealing her long black hair. One of the sailors caught it.
Nettie writhed rhythmically on the floor, her hair dragging across the stage. At the next big growl of the organ, she jumped up and began to open her trench coat buttons, staring seductively at the sailors.
Betty, stripping to “Lily Marlene” with a whip, wearing a black leather uniform, and Patty Pussy, stripping in crimson satin and lace on the slow blues “Night Train” by
Jimmy Forrest, had already had their performances. The club was
We accompanied Broom
singing the “Just a Gigolo/Ain’t Got Nobody” medley
with his best Louis Prima imitation. The spotlights, which were
focusing on us, lit up the cigarette smoke like a white wall of
fog. Through it, I could discern Nettie sitting at the table with
the sailors, wearing her trench coat again.
One of the sailors was
wearing her fedora. She laughed. The sailors had ordered the champagne
meant they had spent a lot of money on cheap bubbly. Nettie would
stay at the sailors’ table as long as they kept the champagne flowing. Nettie herself only drank cola. The girls were prohibited by Minkmeister, the owner of the 966 Muschi Bar, from drinking alcohol. The orchestra and the staff weren’t
allowed to drink alcohol either.
Someone walked through the light beaming off the spotlights. I blinked. Minkmeister was coming over, his right arm around Lora.
She was dressed in a short black, tightly fitting glitter dress with fringes on her thighs and large see-through parts revealing most of her bulging bosom.
They came to stand next
to the orchestra podium behind the organ. Minkmeister kept his
right arm around
Lora’s waist, took his cigar from his mouth and beckoned us.
We went to the final chord. After a meager applause, Tone Wheel played our pause jingle.
I put my guitar on its stand and plunged next to Tone Wheel onto the organ bench. Probably the boss wanted to tell us that he had hired the new girl on trial. We had to discuss what music she would strip to. Almost every day there were new girls coming and going.
“Boys,” Minkmeister said. “Lora has auditioned for me in the office. She’s amazing. I’ve
hired her for the rest of the month.”
“Okay,” Broom said.
“A really great jazz
singer, just what you guys were missing.”
I looked at him in surprise.
“Boss,” Broom said. “We were hired as a trio. We don’t need a sing—”
“No discussions,” Minkmeister said. “This
is my club. I decide who sings here. She is now your singer. You
should be glad that I can recognize talent.”
“But, boss, the last talent you—”
“I can still hear you talking. Get behind those drum kettles and make it snappy. She sings and that’s final. I’m going to grab a beer at the bar and then I’m coming back to sit down here up front. Before my ass touches the chair, you’ll have started her song. Otherwise you guys are fired.” He
turned and walked to the bar.
“Can I do a sound check?” Lora
Broom grinned, pushed
the tip of his nose up with his brush sticks and triumphantly mimed ‘sound check’.
“You just produce the sound, doll,” I said. “We’ll
take the check.”
“Did I say something funny?” She
lifted her head. For the first time I could clearly see her eyes.
were light blue like the ocean after sunrise.
“Sound checks are for
amateurs with tin ears. Just tell us what you want to sing.”
“Don’t you like me anymore? You’re
breaking my heart.”
“Listen, doll. No offence. It’s not that we don’t like you. But you can’t imagine how many girls with beautiful, big, uh….lungs, who think they are Peggy Lee, we’ve had to accompany in this place. We all get them dropped into our laps after they’ve
had an oral audition with the boss. Not one of them could squeeze
out even one correct note.”
She grinned. “I can.”
“Then let’s not talk about it. Let’s
just do it.”
“A man after my own
“Come on, let’s get it over with.” Tone
Wheel sighed. He glanced at the bar and rubbed his jacket with
his right hand, just where the inside pocket was. I could tell
from the look in his eyes that he wanted to whip out his hip flask
to throw back a swig of rum.
“Which masterpiece will it be?” Tone Wheel yanked out a few drawbars of his organ and pushed a few others back. “Fever…My Heart Belongs to Daddy….Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend…”
“Cry Me a River,” Lora
Tone Wheel stopped abusing his organ. He pressed his lips together and stared at her.
Broom lifted his eyebrows and let his brushes slip into the holder next to his drum stool. That intimate jazz ballad was played without drums.
“By Arthur Hamilton? That song was so beautifully sung by Julie London,” I said. “Are you sure you’re
up to it?”
“That song was so beautifully accompanied by Barney Kessel.” She looked at me again. Her light blue irises shone. “Are you sure you’re
up to it?”
“The lady loves a challenge.” I grabbed my semi-acoustic Gibson guitar from the stand. “How
I hung the jazz guitar
on my neck and grinned. “I mean: what key?”
“That’ll be one sharp
“Yeah, one sharp is enough to satisfy me.” She
lowered her head and hid her eyes under her eyebrows again.
(continued on page 2)