Since this weekend marks the tenth anniversary of Princess Diana closing her account at Gucci, so to speak, I thought the following Toggles anecdote from the Folkpunk archives might be somewhat timely. The Toggles, as you may recall, was a '60s British Invasion tribute band featuring Rob Kay on guitar, Jim Clark on drums, and yours truly on bass. We first got together in '96, and by the summer of '97, we'd built up enough of a following that we were playing just about every weekend somewhere in the Toronto area. One of our regular haunts was a pub called Feathers. We'd always go over really well there, since a large portion of their clientele were originally from the UK, and were exactly the right age to remember the stuff that we played. It was probably our favourite venue on our circuit, since the audience would sing along with even our more obscure numbers.
On Saturday, August 30, 1997 we started another evening at Feathers in fine form and everything was going swimmingly, although halfway through our first set I noticed that one by one the televisions in the bar were all switching over to CNN. We couldn't really see any of the screens from where we were playing, so I didn't know what would inspire the bar to switch over from the Bulgarian badminton playoffs, or whatever had been on the tube beforehand. We finished off the set and began our usual between-set circulation through the bar to say hi to friends and loved ones who'd come out to see us. That was when I glanced up at one of the TVs and saw the caption across the bottom of the screen that read "Princess Diana Injured". Now keep in mind that Diana was apt to make headlines every time she caught a cold, and this was, after all, CNN, the same network that dubbed the O.J. Simpson trial the "Trial Of The Century" (memo to Ted Turner: can you say "Nuremburg"?), so my reaction was more than a bit cynical. Since the volume was turned down on all the TVs while the bar blasted the house stereo, none of us could hear what the talking heads on the screens were saying. I snidely commented that Diana had probably sprained her ankle while skiing or something, and CNN was having a slow news day.
After recharging our pint glasses, we headed back to the "stage" (i.e. the corner of the room next to the dart boards) and launched into the second set, blissfully unaware that our night was about to turn into the Weirdest Gig Ever.
While we were in the midst of our second set, the caption along the bottom of the TV screens was updated to "Princess Diana Seriously Injured", and the entire bar suddenly got very quiet. Or more specifically, very quiet except for the three guys in the corner cranking out "What's New Pussycat" at full volume, oblivious to what was going on, since, as I said, we couldn't really see any of the televisions from where we were plugged in. About half of the folks in the audience began finishing their drinks and slowly filing out of the pub, no doubt to head home and phone their families back in England. Keep in mind that a majority of the regulars at Feathers probably owned tea sets commemorating Charles' and Diana's wedding, so this was turning into something heavy to say the least.
We got through the second set, and once again mingled with our peeps during the break. About five minutes before we were planning to start our third and final set, the caption on the bottom of the TV screens was changed to "Princess Diana Dead". The bar staff finally turned off the stereo and cranked up the volume on the televisions, the atmosphere in the bar fell to about three notches below "Miserable" on the Happy Meter, and three Toggles looked at each other as if to say "Oh crap, now what do we do?".
After a quick consultation with the bar manager it was decided that we'd try to lift the spirits of the troops by launching into our peppy, poppy, happy-go-lucky repertoire and finish off the night. We took to the "stage", tuned up, plugged in and began the first song on the set list, a Beatles number entitled "One After 909", which included such lines as "my baby says she's DRIVING on the one after 909", and "come on baby don't be cold as ice". All in all, a somewhat unfortunate choice of lyrics considering the content of the breaking news. During Rob's guitar solo, I looked out into what was left of the crowd, and realized that our plan to cheer everybody up had mostly failed, and in some cases even earned us a dirty look here and there (the nerve of us colonials, acting happy in the face of tragedy...). Most of the audience were watching television instead of the band, and about half of them had tears streaming down their cheeks by this point.Yup, they were actually crying.That pretty much did it for us. We half-heartedly played a couple more songs (we skipped "Drive My Car", in case you were wondering) and then bailed on the whole idea, unplugged our gear and sat down to finish off our pints.
A few minutes later, as I was standing at the bar waiting to get paid for our hard day's night's work (this was back when bars in Toronto actually paid bands, a radical concept by today's standards...) one of the regulars, a Scottish fellow named Al, was standing next to me, glued to CNN. By this point the media were starting to point the finger at the paparazzi as the cause of the car crash that killed Diana, and Al shook his fist at the TV and cursed "Those God-damned pavarotti", in his thick Glaswegian accent. For a moment I pictured a herd of bearded opera singers chasing Diana around Paris. And then my mind sort of went one step further and I pictured the opera singers wearing Shriners' hats and riding mini bikes (hey, if you're going to visit Abstract Land you might as well get your money's worth).
And suddenly the surreal nature of the whole evening hit me, and I got a momentary case of the giggles. I put up a monumental struggle to avoid laughing out loud in the midst of the mourners, but the whole thing was just beyond bizarre, and I spent the next moments back at our table with head bowed in faux sadness and my pint glass strategically placed in front of my mouth to camouflage my dopey grin. I gave Rob and Jim their share of the lucre, and we packed up and left.
And now the epilogue: When we attempted to land another gig at Feathers, we were told that the bar hadn't made much money on our August 30th gig, and they'd call us when they had an opening. Which of course they never did.