Sunday Stories: “A Classic Rock Funeral Dirge”


A Classic Rock Funeral Dirge
by Thaïs Miller

As I step out of the cab, paparazzi cameras flash. Men in black suits with earpieces usher the crowd away from the car, away from the chapel’s courtyard. Leave it to Mitch to have a funeral in a church dating back to the fifteenth century. The building is shrouded by gothic archways, stone pillars, and stained glass. Gaudy as ever, just like Mitch.

I expect one of the security guards to recognize me, but the men only take me in with their reflective sunglasses for a second before gathering around an approaching limousine. In the courtyard, clusters of people in black ignore me. The buzz of whispers reflects off the cobblestones.

Mitch died last Tuesday, and I found out on the radio, driving to a gig. I called Eddie, my manager, our manager, and asked where the funeral would be. He said, “Rosslyn Chapel near Mitch’s Scottish estate.”

I asked if he could get me inside. He said he’d try. We hung up and I bought a plane ticket. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t spoken to Mitch in years.

Outside the chapel, I see a bunch of gray-haired blokes that resemble The Nicotines. I haven’t seen them in ten years, since they opened for my first solo tour. Lou, the drummer, waves from a wheelchair. He looks too old and hunched over to be Lou as though he’s a bag of bones instead of the best drummer I know, decaying from the inside. Sweat pools at my temples. For a moment, I consider turning around, escaping this freak show. But then I remind myself that last year I turned seventy.

None of us were supposed to look like this. We were supposed to die young with the rest of our lot in the seventies. We were meant to go down swinging, not slowly wither away. I could say that I wish we’d done more when we were young, but we did it all. Somehow we survived the parties, the stunts, the drugs. Mitch is the first of our elderly pack to depart this earth, to leave us and prove that death is inevitable.

Even Leon Woodraker is here. Mitch was always jealous of his pipes. Leon could howl like no one else and always made sure no one forgot it. I haven’t seen him since we played at the Free Tibet Rally together, and he bit off the head of a pigeon. Mitch hated it, called it a publicity stunt, “against everything this concert stands for,” and refused to work with him ever again. Leon asked me to come on tour with him after the group split up, but I couldn’t do it. Mitch was right: Leon was a publicity hound.

Outside the gates the chapel, Leon waves at the photographers. He carries a cane and wears his signature fedora and purple sunglasses that cover most of his wrinkled, pox-ridden face. He was always pale, but now he’s green.

“How’s it going?” I ask him.

He raises his shoulders and mumbles. I don’t understand a word he says. Years of smoking, drinking, and belting at two in the morning have obliterated his voice.

“All right, all right.” I pat him on the back, and he almost falls over, clutching the cane for dear life. I’ve never seen him so fragile. He turns toward me and scowls.

Alvie from Willow and the Hipsters waves me over near the entrance. Of all the bands that opened for us, they were my favorite. Instead of chain smoking per usual, Alvie’s hooked up to an oxygen tank. It makes the same whirling noise as his wheezing breath. He has new teeth. The last time I saw them, they were yellow stubs from the drugs. Next to him stands a Filipino woman thirty years younger than him.

“Good ol’ Alvie.” I wink at him and thrust my pelvis toward the woman next to him. The gesture painfully reminds me that I have a replacement hip.

He shakes his head wide-eyed. “Tha-That’s my nurse: Angela.” He lowers his voice. “Pete, I couldn’t get it up anymore if I tried.”

Angela promptly walks Alvie away from me, leading him up a ramp, inside the chapel. I follow. The chapel is rectangular, covered in engraved, medieval stones. The ceiling is crowded with iron chandeliers carrying lit candles. Although I’ve shrunk half an inch, I still have to duck my head, careful not to light my white hair on fire.

On a balcony, a giant organ overlooks the closed casket. I always thought Mitch had wanted to be cremated, but this is fitting. I’d imagined that speakers would be blasting his solo guitar riffs. Instead, the organist plays an arrangement of Brahms’s “A Funeral Song.” A choir stands behind the remains of my former best mate. As they begin to sing, my body becomes heavy as though I’m dragging an amplifier.

The attendees inside the chapel look like they belong in a geriatrics home. I’ve never seen so many canes and walkers. We use to dive into audiences, crowd surf while playing impromptu solos, and now this: nurses, canes?

In the second row, I see Johnny, the keyboardist from our group, though it’s been a couple years since I’ve seen him in person. I sit down next to him, and he promptly takes out his phone, struggles with it, and then shows me a picture of his three-year-old granddaughter covered in spilled peas. He’s become addicted to Facebook and can’t stop posting pictures of his grandkids. I remember when groupies took Polaroids of his penis. But even that was three decades ago, when none of us thought we’d die.

And that’s when Maryann spots me, our Maryann. Mitch and I married and divorced her, wrote ballads praising and defacing her. She’s our muse. Over the past few years, I’ve only spoken to her on the phone. She walks over and puts a hand on my shoulder. She dyed her hair blond again, the way it used to be, and she’s plumper, no longer a skeleton. As she draws closer, the edge of her breasts graze my shirt. Her hand glides toward my neck. I can smell her spearmint gum.

“Hey, Pete.” She leaves her hand next to my neck. “I’m sorry to see you here, under these circumstances.”

“You too.” I looked for her in every crowd, at every show.

Her blue eyes are piercing. “Are you going to speak?”

I nod my head no, absolutely not. What would I tell them? The last time I saw Mitch was a decade ago. He was snorting coke off a toilet at the Chateau Marmont on Sunset Boulevard, telling me I was a cunt for deserting the band. I told him Dirty Safety Pins wasn’t healthy for me, that he wasn’t healthy. He could barely remember the lyrics we spent weeks writing together. All of that work, all of his talent, sacrificed for a high. Everyone in this church knows that Mitch was an alcoholic who needed a new liver but never got one. According to The Daily Star, he barely got a place on the donor waitlist.

Our “artistic differences” rose to the surface after we made our millions touring the UK and America. This was after we went platinum and bought our mansions and Ferraris. I’d had enough, but Mitch didn’t want the ride to end. Not at forty, not even at fifty. I needed to be on my own, so Eddie got me a solo record deal, and the band called it quits. It didn’t matter that Mitch’s solo album ultimately sold more than mine. He never forgave me.

I ask Maryann, “Will you say something?”

“Might say a word.” She grimaces. “Depends on Sadie.”

Sadie is Mitch’s widow, a thirty-year-old actress turned sadist that he married five years ago. She took complete control over his estate last year, when he was in and out of the hospital, not returning my phone calls. Sadie wears a black strapless dress in the front row of the Church of England.

The organist stops playing, but the sound echoes in the chapel for a few seconds longer like an exhale. The choir scatters, and the priest begins the ceremony. Midway through his opening blessing, Sadie interrupts the priest and takes the microphone off his stand. She holds the mic between her hands and sings the latest single she’s released while weeping.

Maryann and Johnny shift in their seats next to me, and the wooden pew creaks. They knew Mitch for longer than Sadie’s time on earth. I have, or rather, had known Mitch for over fifty years, since I heard him playing a banjo in the alley behind our secondary school. I’d never heard anything like it, and out of instinct, I took out my harmonica. We became best mates cutting class and riffing on Lead Belly tunes. I can still remember Mitch crooning “Careless Love.” He always carried around this little gadget that looked like a Swiss Army Knife, except that in addition to a retractable blade, it contained a comb. He used to grease up his curly hair and comb it straight for hours. At least the hair pomade masked the smell of the alley. Nearby, there was a wrecked septic tank surrounded by a low, steel fence. We used to walk on the fence like a balance beam. One day Mitch was prancing around on it, when he pulled out the gadget from his pocket to comb his hair. He took out the switch blade by accident and caught by surprise, he almost fell into the ditch.

I told him, “You could’ve drowned in shit, split your head open!”

He smiled. “Sounds like a good lyric.”

That afternoon, while we were writing our first song, I asked him, “What’s the thing you’ll miss the most when you die?”

“New sound,” he said without hesitation. “All the new music created after I’m gone.”

I knew in that instant that we were two faces of the same coin.

His pa was a music teacher, and when he wasn’t piss drunk or threatening to tan Mitch’s hide, he taught us how to read music. Mitch stole a 1956 Les Paul Gibson guitar that he kept in my basement. I saved my lunch money to buy a banged up electric bass. We put an ad for a keyboardist on a bar bulletin board. That’s how Johnny showed up. Our only interview question was, “Do you like rock n’ roll?”

Johnny said, “Do I?” Then he played Jerry Lee Lewis tunes for three hours straight until we told him he could join the group.

We went through a series of drummers like cigarettes. We started as The Scraggliest, singing doo-wop covers in the basement of the Westminster Club for tourists. We had bowl haircuts like The Beatles, and we were so eager to perform, so willing to do it for free. Johnny was the first to grow his hair to his shoulders and then spike it. The thin gray strands he has left loll like a limp willy in a ponytail against his neck.

Maryann touches her pinky finger against mine then lifts her hand. Before I know what she’s doing, she’s cradling my hand in her callused palms. Mitch renamed our group to impress her. Maryann was a seamstress, a costume designer for London bands. So in 1976, Mitch started calling us the Dirty Safety Pins. Several platinum albums, world tours, Grammys, and a Hall of Fame induction later, it’s hard to think of the group as anything else. It’s hard to think of myself as anyone other than Mitch’s bass player or backup vocals. Leaving the band, leaving him, was like leaving part of me on a distant stage. Even this, Mitch’s final vanishing act, is yet another performance. I’m sure that some Rolling Stone reporter in the crowd is scribbling: “magniloquent” and “sonorous.” But it doesn’t feel right. I feel like I’m hearing some concert from the last row, not the eulogy for my best mate. Sadie is his widow, and the reason why most of us haven’t seen Mitch in years, so she speaks at his funeral. Being a diva, she eulogizes alone.

Sometimes in a state of shock during mourning, we shout out things we shouldn’t. We list all the things we couldn’t stand about the person as a way of coping with loss. Sadie is going on and on about how the “rotten bastard cheated on me with some bitchy Yank actress—half my age—while performing on Saturday Night Live.”

That would have made the actress fifteen years old. And while I wouldn’t put it past Mitch, I wouldn’t put anything past Mitch, it seems a bit absurd, even for him. I wonder how Mitch would have been able to have sex while performing on SNL, but that’s beside the point.

“He was a cheap son-of-a-bitch,” Sadie continues, explaining how he wouldn’t give her a dime. She claims she made him sober. I could claim that Mitch had been with at least one hundred women before she was born.

And, the icing on the cake: Sadie claims, “He couldn’t play for shit.”

I take personal offense. Having recorded eighteen albums with the dead bastard, I know his musical talents better than anybody, Johnny aside. He’d nail every note, every complex chord progression. It was only later under Sadie’s care, when he was sick and battling every addiction, that his talent waned. Maybe she stopped believing in him, but I never did.

So I do something I never intended to do: I stand up. I’ve only ever done this at rock concerts and strip clubs. Never in a church, never mid-performance, I mean, mid-eulogy.

“Oy!” I yell at Mitch’s daft widow. “Mitch was the best bloody guitarist north of Manchester!”

At which point, half the crowd applauds. The other half is deaf. After playing too many gigs without earplugs, they understand only half my words and fidget in their seats. I repeat my words louder. This leaves only a quarter of the room covering their faces with the hymn booklet in embarrassment, unsure if they know what I’m talking about.

“Aye!” Johnny cries in agreement.

Sadie is stepping down from the raised platform. She is walking toward the pews. We have almost won the battle. I continue to speak triumphantly, though a small voice of reason within me tells me I shouldn’t. “Even when he was snorting coke and too hung up on Thatcher’s politics to write a decent lyric,” I sermonize, “he could play like a daemon!”

More heads in the crowd nod this time. I’m getting through. Maryann blows me a kiss, tears fill her eyes. I’m not just standing up for Mitch but also the weight of the occasion. No one should be criticized at their own funeral, especially not a rock musician.

Sadie stands in front of my aisle. “You asshole!” She puts one hand in her brassier and slips out Mitch’s Swiss Army Knife. She flips out the switch blade. She lunges toward me, her manicured fingers prepared to gouge out my eyes.

That’s when Maryann steps in, using her body to block Sadie’s way down the aisle. Maryann reaches her hands to the heavens and opens her mouth. She unveils her beautiful alto voice. The voice I’ve never forgotten. She leads the crowd in a verse of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” as I jump over a pew and dash down another aisle. I barely escape Sadie’s groping hands.

Outside the church, I run toward the parking lot with the thirty-year-old banshee on my tail. It feels like I’m touring again: exposing my soul to the masses, screaming a protest, leaving my heart on the stage, and then running out the back from a woman. I’m reminded of so many gigs, so many tours. Now, more than ever, I miss Mitch running alongside me.

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1 comment

  1. I thoroughly enjoy how alive Pete is by the end of his best mate’s funeral. Reminiscing about old times and showing a glimmer of the man he once was. Every character has such depth, and fells so incredibly real. I felt like I was reading a short story of an actual 70’s band. I loved it.