TURN THE WATER ON, BOY!

It was about 1994 when the then still electric, drums and amps, rock & roll playing Coal Porters were doing gigs in Eire. One night across the border we played a great show in Derry, it was the night Norway defeated England in footie and the Irish in the big pub where we played were going nuts cheering on the Norwegians via a satellite broadcast on TV.

We had been paid and there was still smoking allowed in pubs and the room where the gig was and the room where the TV was being so avidly watched were both filled with grey smoke. I went outside to catch a breath of fresh air.

Once outside on the Derry pavement I remember my Derry pals telling me the street was the exact border of the Catholic and Protestant parts of town and to be careful there. Yet it was so quiet outside relative to the noise still slightly audible from inside the pub I decided to remain out in the cool evening air. It was well past midnight and the pub was having a stay-back to celebrate the Norwegians beating the English in football.

In fact the pub looked entirely shut save the light slipping through the various cracks in the shuttered up windows. It was surprisingly still outside and surprisingly peaceful. The pub was at the top of a rising road and as I looked to the northeast I was looking down the slope of the road as it lowered itself in its path towards the River Foyle. The streetlamps were on and I could hear a few people stirring in the apartments above the shops across the street from the pub but little else.

Suddenly I heard something. It was growing slightly louder yet growing louder slowly. After about twenty seconds of me standing still I could tell it was the sound of at least two male voices raised in song. Raised in song, yes, and then raised in argument, then more song, then a duetted laughter, then another chorus and then some more arguing and shouting. This audible pattern repeated itself over and over and over. It got alot louder when two figures turned the corner about three blocks away. They were arm in arm and walking in a serpentine stroll slowly up the street. They were still near the river so they were lower than me in elevation but they were apparently headed my way although they occasionally awkwardly stumbled backwards or to the side which meant that it was hard to tell which direction they were intending to go. But they were singing/arguing/laughing loudly and they were obviously quite happily drunk.

The two men had their arms around one another and then one would quite quickly push off the other one at about shoulder height and throw a hook or jab. They would then square off in the street, the middle of the street, and for about seven or eight seconds throw a quite violent series of punches at the other. Jab, block, hook, parry, jab again. I could tell they had both been trained as prizefighters at some time in their respective pasts. No question about that. Yet the fighting would cease either with a punch landing or all punches missing, didn’t seem to matter, and they would carry on with another verse or chorus of an old favorite. I distinctly heard them singing “The Men Behind The Wire” and as they completed the first block and I saw them more clearly I could see that unlike most drunks parading the late night streets of western Europe that evening these two gentlemen were not only without beer guts they were, in point of fact, wearing tight t-shirts on a chilly evening out and those t-shirts showed both men were in great shape. A drunken punch from either one of them would not feel too good.

They were still almost two blocks away although they had begun the slow upwards trek towards me in the middle of the street and my pub at the top of the hill. I thought it might be best to get back inside, particularly when I realised I was silhouetted by the full moon up and behind me. Without any great sense of panic I walked measurely towards the door of the pub. It was locked. I hanked on it. It was shut tight. I called out to the revelers inside. No one could hear me. I called louder. Still no response other than the laughter from inside the pub and the general chatter of the late night drinkers. I rang the doorbell of the pub and while I did so I was reminded the publican told me it was broken. So I then shouted louder to let me in, please! At this lights came on across the street in some of the flats above the shops there. I was waking people up. I moved to the windows of the pub but they were shuttered tight. I banged on them. No one answered this either.

By now the two prizefighting drunks were on the same block as me and the shut tight pub. I kicked the door. No answer. It was hopeless. So I turned to the pavement and braced myself for an inquisition from two intoxicated Derrymen who enjoyed smacking each other around the noggin’ as a sign of friendship. Wonder what they would do to strangers?

Their singing was interspersed with giggles at this point, giggles which were two drunk’s attempts to be at least a bit quieter in respect of the wee ones sleeping in the flats above the shops on this particular street. For some reason, God knows why, I walked towards our white rental van parked across the street. At this the two pugilists spotted me and stopped singing, calling out for me to identify myself. I turned to face them. They walked right up to me, neither menacingly or with warmth, and both got about eighteen inches from my face, a clear attempt to invade my body space and see what I would do as a reaction. I stood quite still with my arms at my side and I made hard fists out of both my hands. I could see neither fellow was a young man anymore, they looked in their sixties, but I wasn’t going to let anyone punch me without me punching back.

The drunk on my left leaned in even closer, looking me up and down. Then he barked out via his bad breath and some coarse spittle, “TURN THE WATER ON, BOY!” I looked at him as if he was crazy…which he might have been. What the hell did that mean? He waited and when I did nothing he again ordered, this time even louder, “TURN THE WATER ON, BOY!!” I looked over at this friend who had staggered back a step or two. He was smiling, this one, and he looked at me kindly and said, “he wants ‘ya to sing”. What, he wants me to sing? “Yeah, he wants ‘ya to give us a song…c’mon, son, now TURN THE WATER ON, will ‘ya not, boy?!?!?”

I looked back at the guy on my left who was still about a foot away from my face. I was sober and would not be humiliated by these bozos. I loudly and proudly burst into the first verse and chorus of My Old Kentucky Home, the state song of my beloved bluegrass state. The drunk so close on my left looked stunned, the drunk who was on my right and who had just staggered backwards a bit looked like he had been handed the winning ticket to the Irish Sweepstakes (then still in existence). I finished the “…for my old Ken-tuck-eee home…far…far awaaaaaaaayyyyy!” crescendo bit with as much Tony Bennett as I could. Bang. Then silence filled the air. The two drunks looked at each other, astonished. Then they applauded. They applauded loudly. The more intimidating one who was on my left clapped me forcefully on the back and said “NOW THASSSSS A-TURNIN’ THE WATER ON, BOY…YE SHOWED ‘EM, YE REALLY SHOWED ‘EM ALL…”

They then began to introduce themselves. They had met in the ring as opponents in 1962 and later courted the same girl. They’d been best friends ever since those happy younger days but before a full Life Story could be started they started arguing over the middle name of some old prizefighter they used to know and with that they started to walk away, singing, arguing about the middle name and laughing uproariously every twenty seconds or so. Then they would stop to throw punches at one another before carrying on home, completely unaware I had ever been on the same street as them.

When I told this story to the band during a long drive to a gig in 2005 they decided it would make a grand name for our next album. And so it is…TURN THE WATER ON, BOY!”

Story by Sid Griffin, every word of it is true.

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