Invisible Stranger

Invisible Stranger

Collecting Crises on Old Compton Street and Beyond

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Little Tinker

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Tuesday, April 08, 2003
I Love A Piano
Way back in the Olden Days, when Soho was still raunchy and disreputable, I was a late-night regular at a tatty little joint called the Piano Bar. You'll have seen it. In the 80s, every video, every telly, every single photo ever shot in Soho at night, seemed obliged to show a glimpse of its tacky façade.

Look! There it is now! On the corner. See it? Its name outlined in flashing pink neon. Past the hot-dog stand, next to Madame Jo-Jo's, across the alley from Raymond's Revue Bar (Live Bed Show! Exotic Dancing Girls! Full-Frontal Nudity!).

Come on. Don't be scared. Just hand over your one-quid at the door and either Bill the bouncer or his missus will let us in. Sometimes, Bill turns people away. Not us. He knows me. Bundled me into a cab once when I was too drunk to stand.

Whoops! Watch that step. Yeah, it is dark in here, isn't it? Mind that sticky patch of carpet. No, it’s nothing special. Barely the size of your mum's living-room. Look, here's a couple of quid. Go over to the bar and get us two cans of Pils from Gloria Passage. Yeah, guy in the white satin shorts. Oh, and don’t forget the straws.

Cheers. Kind of empty, but, it's only half-ten. The background muzak? Sondheim, I think. Kander & Ebb? Could be Rodgers & Hammerstein. Hard to tell when your sound system consists of two manky speakers and a beaten-up cassette deck, isn't it?

Those two? Seen the one in the leather jacket before. Yeah, him with the acne and the bum-fluff. Comes in with a different "uncle" every night. They never stay long. Can't imagine where they get off to.

It 's only just gone eleven, but I reckon you ought to grab us a couple of them stools by the piano. Me, I'll get more Pils. Geezer in the white jacket who just waved at us? Bob, the toilet attendant. To make sure people don't shag in the loos, of course.

Filling up nicely now. Comptons and the Golden Lion have chucked out, you see. Nowhere else to go. All the lost and wasted of Soho wind up here eventually anyway. Camp queens and their fag-hags. "Theatricals". Skinheads. Film editors from Wardour Street clocking off for the day. Even Sharon from EastEnders was in here the other night. Neil Tennant, too. Had a really cute boy in tow.

See that guy in the camel coat with the gold jewellery and the cigar? Stay clear of him, mate. Just in case, you understand. Three years in Pentonville for aggravated GBH. Nah. One of the nicest blokes I've met in here. Usually.

No, that's a man. Madame Jo-Jo herself. From the Philippines. Killer legs, aren't they? Runs the posh drag club downstairs (strictly for tourists, and overpriced, at two quid a drink, but, if you want, I'll get you in for free later). One-time porno boss turned property tycoon, Paul Raymond, owns both places. He slips in here now and again to listen to the act. Always polite. Keeps himself to himself, nursing a whisky and coke.

Told you. Those stools get taken really quickly, don't they? Already fifteen of us perched at the piano. Though him next to me, well, he looks like he's going to fall off any second now. There. Told you he would. Yeah, get two more Pils in, will you? It’s midnight, and the show's about to start.

And here's Ziggy Cartier (Steve, actually), making her grand entrance. Mwah, mwah, darling, how are you? Yeah, I know her wig's too blonde and bouffant, and that scarlet number's too spangley and clingy by half. Nice boobs though. She'll be singing here tonight, accompanied by the lovely Nigel on piano.

Ziggy will do a few numbers in that husky, twenty-Woodbines-a-day voice of hers: "Gee, But It's Good To Be Here"; maybe "I'm Just A Girl Who Can't Say No"; definitely "The Vatican Rag". Whatever. We know all the words and we’re already singing along. A bit of foul-mouthed bitching and then she'll encourage the punters to come up and have a go themselves. Cute Jewish Michael will do his party-piece of "Hava Nageela Hava". A bunch of West End chorus-boyz usually mince in after work, and they'll take a turn at the mike. And, if you’re really lucky, that beautiful boy with the blow-job lips will do his amazing rendition of "Un bel di" from Madame Butterfly.

Intermission now. Time to get another coupla cans. Those boys in fishnets and stilettos? They’re the Barbettes, the bar-staff from downstairs on their break. And that over made-up, over-dressed, Captain-Pugwash-in-a-frock lookalike? Ruby Venezuela. Best pair of lungs in the biz, she has.

Now there's a turn up for the books. Not. That rancid tart from the Dilly hasn't just gone and passed out again, has she? Should've seen Dave. He can get you some speed, or that new ecstasy stuff they’re writing about in The Face. Huh! Sez he's straight. Didn't stop him posing for that sleazy w**k mag, did it? He'll get up and do a song later too. Does a nice "Delilah", does our Dave. Straight, my ass…

Y'all right? Look a bit queasy, thass'all. Aww, c'mon, one little more Pils wone hurtcha, will't? See? Shhbetter, already, isshn't it? Yessh, lessh'all sing along with Ziggy: "If I can maaaaaake it therrrrrre, I'll maaaaake it any-wherrrrrrrre." …"And when I diiee I'm go-o-ing like Elllllll-sie…" Come on, it’s a laff, innit?

Whaddya mean? Three o'clock, already. F**k, I'm shit-faced. What we need is a fry-up. Less' juss go 'long with Ziggy and Gloria and the Barbettes to Harry's All-Night Caff round the corner. You coming? Yeah, great night. F**king ace. We doing it again, tomorrow?

• • •

Today Soho is Queer Central, the Homopolis of gay style and sophistication. Seedy little drinking dens have given way to bright spacious bars. Ziggy's left us for good, as have Bob, and Nigel at the piano. And you can walk hand-in-hand with your boyfriend down Old Compton Street and not get your head kicked in, most of the time.

And the Piano Bar itself has been bought and transformed into a gay dance bar called Escape. The lay-out of the new bar is much the same, but now the Show Tunes have been replaced by House music. We drink Smirnoff Ices there, rather than cans of Pils, And instead of Rent Boys on the make, you'll probably bump into a couple of perfectly pleasant, well-educated, off-duty Escorts.

It's all for the best, probably, and you'll occasionally find me there on a Saturday night. It's a well-toned member of the Soho scene; a great place to rev yourself up before your weekend clubbing; where the party-people are predictably beautiful and impeccably dressed; and where the buzz is fabulous (absolutely), and the pose always just so.

And it's at times like this, my dears, that I really, really miss the old Piano Bar.