Where's Johnny Steen? I've come for my ear!"
The man at the nightclub door had a bandana of crepe wrapped around his head and a face etched in pain. Blood issued through the bandage at the point where his right ear should have been but patently was not.
"Johnny's not in. Hasn't been here all night." I replied trying not to stare at his injury.
"He bit my ear off." He continued, fingers dabbing tentatively around the wound as though checking his ear had really gone.
He wandered off to the next club in search of his missing body part.
Grape-vine gossips later informed me that the missing ear - bitten off in a grudge fight at the local park - had had been harpooned by the new owner to a dartboard in a busy pub and auctioned off to the highest bidder. The ear of a name fighter was quite a trophy in Coventry's lower echelons.
The seller got twenty quid and the buyer got to wear his prize on a key ring - a grotesque talking point.
In my former incarnation as a nightclub bouncer I had my life threatened more times than I care to remember. I was shot at, stabbed, glassed, punched, kicked, scratched, bitten, spat on, vomited over, and trampled. I fought in pub bars, car parks, chip shops, restaurants, and once at a friends christening: he'd asked me to have a word with a rowdy relative not realising that his interpretation of 'a word' was entirely different to mine.
Three friends were murdered during a decade of madness and mayhem. Another, depressed and grossly over-exposed to violence, tried to end his life - alone in a ditch - by swallowing a bottle of bleach. Many more were sent to jail, and a few ended up on the psychiatrists couch. Nearly all -myself included - found the divorce courts before salvation found us.
Ironically I only took the job to face down my fears. I became a bouncer in the late eighties because I'd inherited my mum's nerves and as a consequence was plagued by debilitating depressions and irrational fears. Standing on a nightclub door was little more than a pragmatic experiment in growing courage.
Bouncing was not my first course of action; it was a last chance saloon.
The first port of call - the doctor's surgery - left me disappointed. Medicine had not evolved much it would seem: I hoped that working as a bouncer might prove a little more inspiring than a sympathetic smile and a course of Prozac.
It did but the price was high.
Frederick Nietzsche said that we should be careful when hunting the dragon not to become the dragon. It was a prophetic warning, one I wish I'd heeded sooner.
The Coventry club scene dished out violence as thick as it did fast. It was mostly unsolicited and it was always heinous. But for a lad looking to quieten his fears with a heavy dose of desensitisation there was no better place to be.
I only intended to stay in the job for a short while: ten years and many broken bones later I was still there. My fears had been trounced and the depressions a distant memory, but the reflection in my bathroom mirror was no longer of a man I immediately recognised or particularly liked. The soft youth of yesteryear had become a hard man who used violence as a problem solving tool. Those that stepped into my world looking for a little contact were dealt with quickly, brutally and always without demur.
Not surprising this placed me in bad stay with the law, but then policemen and bouncers have always shared an unholy alliance. We loved to hate them and they loved to lock us up at any given opportunity. Silly really when you consider the fact that we were both trying to do the same job: protect the good majority from the bad minority and the indifferent from themselves. That is not to say there were no exceptions. When it suited them the police could be very accommodating. After separating a local hard man from his teeth and his consciousness I found my self in a police cell facing a charge of Section 18 Wounding With Intent, which carried a possible five years in prison. My immediate future was looking pretty bleak until it was discovered that the man in hospital had a long list of previous convictions for police assault. In light of the new information the arresting officer found a sudden and healthy respect for me; he dropped all charges leaving me with a clean record and an unofficial pat on the back.
The police look after their own.
The camaraderie on the door was equally strong. We had our own rules and those that broke them did so at their peril. Anyone who attacked a doorman or a member of staff were taken -usually dragged - somewhere quiet and taught the error of their ways. Our reasoning was simple enough; you have to slaughter a chicken to train a monkey. Brutal perhaps, but then standing over the open coffin of a workmate who had paid the ultimate price was no picnic. Noel was one of three friends who found their young names in the obituary column. One took a Saturday night baseball bat over the head and died on the Tuesday. Another upset a local gangster with Manchester connections and paid with a bullet in the head as he sat in his car. The third - Noel - forgot the Musashian code that all bouncers live or die by; after the battle tighten your helmet straps. He was attacked as he left the night club at three in the morning - a vulnerable time when most doormen switch off as they head for home. He was stabbed through the heart by a man with a head full of grudge and a skin full of strong larger. He was dead before his head hit the pavement. Noel was wonderful man who didn't read the signs. And there are always signs. The rituals of attack. The pre-fight twitches of men with bad intention and no fear of consequence.
Knives may be the tool of choice for the career criminal but I found to my cost that people are nothing if not inventive when it comes to finding and using expedient weapons to bash, slash and pound each other. A man called Granite Jaw once tried to demolish a concrete dustbin using the top of my head, I had to bite the end of his finger off before he'd let me go.
Doormen regularly face a multiple of offensive weapons in the course of duty; guns, coshes, bats, bars, crutches, craft knives, carpet cutters and cars - a maniac called Tank once drove a Ford Cortina through the front doors of a busy Coventry club to enact his revenge after being barred by the doormen. On another occasion a troublesome youth who threatened that he was going to "shoot you bastards!" was gambolled from the club with a bitch-slap and a challenge; "Go'n fetch your gun." Of course we never thought he would. Five minutes later he was back in a white Merc with a rifle - trained on us - poking through a gap in driver's side window. Before he could fire myself and three other brave doormen hit the deck and scurried - on our hands and knees - for the safety of the club.
Even people can be used as implements of pain when an equaliser is called for. An infamous eighteen stone doorman and former wrestler called Bert Assarati found himself before a judge after hospitalising several men outside a London nightclub, one of whom was in a particularly bad way. The judge asked Assarati, "What did you hit him with?" Assarati deadpanned, "His mate." Apparently he'd picked one man up above his head and used him to bludgeon the other.
Given the chance people will even attack you with their bodily fluids: blood, sick, spit, shit -nothing is sacred. One drunk and incapable man was so angry when I asked him to leave the club that he unzipped and pissed all over my trousers. It was very embarrassing. I could smell the vapour for days. Another man who I'd caught stealing cash from the bar till smashed his own nose off a table edge, machine gunned me with a gob full of blood and later told the police that I beat him up for nothing and invented the whole robbery story just to cover my tracks - and the police believed him!
Without question the most dangerous weapon by far was the one handed to every customer that stepped across our welcome mat. A beer glass. Even the uninitiated in a second of drunken madness can end a life with the speared edges of a broken jug. And the girls were often the worst offenders. Especially when another female stood between them and their man. I had to administer first aid to a beautiful twenty-something after a love rival cracked a wine glass on the edge of the bar and rammed in into her face. She hit her with such force that two inches of the glass stayed buried beneath her cheekbone. It took six hours of reconstruction to fix her face. The psychological damage would take more to repair than a surgeon's stitch.
Dealing with women was not always so violent, but it was often tricky. I had my fair share of sexual come-ons from scantily clad beauties with a penchant for large men in tuxedo suits. The door is a seductive trade offering local celebrity, free beer and loose women to those with a weak will and a strong libido. I was married at the time so I should have abstained, and most of the time I did, but I can't say that I didn't occasionally succumb. In my defence - and my shame - my indulgences were infrequent and never without a post coital dose of guilt and remorse. Personally I found more profit in light flirtations than full-on promiscuity. For instance, an off-the-cuff compliment about the splendid condition of a customer's bottom once earned me months of pleasure. The lady in question thanked me by lifting her skirt and flashing a frilly pair of pink knickers that clung Kylie-tight to the neatest little bottom I have ever set eyes on. I was the envy of every man in the club. It became a Saturday night ritual that never failed to please. Sadly, it ended the night she turned up on the arm of a man with a face like ten boxers. I don't think he would have appreciated her generous spirit. Still, it was good while it lasted.
Some women wanted more for their money than a bit of sexually charged banter. For several weeks I complimented Lala on how nice she was looking. I mentioned her hair, her shoes (girls like that) and how nice her perfume was. I badly misread the situation. What had been an innocent flirt for me was patently a red-hot come-on for her. I realised my folly the night she wedged me - using her amble bust - into a dark corner of a busy nightclub and whispered in my ear, "I'd love to take you home with me, I'd massage your whole body in baby oil, then I'd get Victor out." I raised an eyebrow into a question-mark and asked, terrified, "Victor?" She made a yummy smile, snaked her hand seductively down my chest and said. "Victor the vibrator." I made a few hasty excuses and spent the rest of the night hiding in a cloakroom.
Not all of the women I encountered were so enamoured by me. A rather irate lady once tried to decapitate me with the stiletto end of her right shoe whilst I wrestled her boyfriend from the club. He'd ordered drinks and refused to pay for them so he had to go. She was having none of it. Each time her shoe bounced off my head she screamed, "Violence is not the answer!" Hypocrisy it would seem holds no bounds.
I was lucky. Another doorman was stabbed in the ribs by a maniacal mother with a pair of nail scissors when he tried to stop her daughter - the bride-to-be - from having live sex with a hen-night strip-o-gram.
Personally, when dealing with women, I always recommend restraint. There is rarely cause to be physical. A keen eye and a quick wit is often all you need. The mere mention of large bottoms, flaccid bosoms and a hairy upper-lip are usually enough to send a body-conscious female scurrying for safety. We refused a rather large lady entry to the club one night because she was violently drunk and scaring the other customers (and the doormen). She wasn't happy. Intimating that she would return to the club with a bit of canine back -up, she bragged. "I breed Rottweilers"' My mate Tony, a master of observational put-downs replied. "Well love, you've definitely got the hips for it."
Violent men and frightening women are bad enough, but at least you know where you stand with them. It is when the gender is ambiguous that confusion can trigger sheer terror. Tuesdays at Busters nightclub was alternative night, which meant a culture dish of gays, geeks, Goths, punks and trannies. Nothing too bad in that you might think. I felt the same way until the night a pretty little girl who had given me the eye on the way into the club followed me into the gent's toilets, hitched up her plaid skirt, took out her manhood, smiled and then proceeded to relieve herself in the urinal next to mine.
Nightclub toilets were also the favoured hidey-hole for criminals and vagabonds. Bag thieves used toilet cisterns to dump stolen and fleeced handbags, whilst muggers regularly attacked and robbed their unwitting victims when they were at their most vulnerable; unzipped at the urinal or de-bagged on the can. Messy but effective. And it was the doormen that had to clean up afterwards. Equally unpleasant was the mess left when too much partying resulted in a vomit fest.
Escorting the ill and the infirm from the premises without getting a jacket full of sick yourself was tricky, if not impossible. It was definitely was my least favourite task. Some people at least had the courtesy to wait until they'd vacated the building before shouting Hughy! One gent retched and heaved his way out of the club, sat down by a wall, threw up and then proceeded to pass out. Whilst he lay unconscious in a pillow of regurgitated Chicken Korma I propped a sign by his head that read: 'I bet he drinks Carling Black label'.
Druggies, similarly, used the multi-purpose space of the club loo to inject, roll, swallow, sniff and deal chemical high. Occasionally - and disappointingly - those on the make were the doormen themselves, though, despite suggestions to the contrary - and certainly from my experience - this scenario is rare. A good door team would not be seen dead dealing in drugs. They are constantly on the look out for dealers and users, both of whom get short thrift and a fast exit from the club if they are caught.
No moral crusade I can assure you, just part of the job description.
People are fixated by the evils of drugs and there is little doubt that for those who deal and those that take there can be no undamaged escape. But as an empiricist I would argue that if drugs are evil then alcohol is the devil incarnate. Not only is it more damaging and deadly than Class A drugs - it kills and ravages tens of thousands more per capita that any other substance - it is legal, socially acceptable and it doesn't even carry a government warning. And the deadly trilogy of stress, booze and nightclub ambience is all the ingredients you need to turn even the nicest people into despicable creatures.
Alcohol has always been linked with - and often blamed for - many of our societal ills, not least the burgeoning growth in unsolicited violence. No doubt there is a link between binge-drinking and bar-fighting, but the former is surely a trigger and not the root cause. Pubs and clubs are brimming over with angst ridden folk looking to displace a bad day, a bad week or a bad life in a good night. Perhaps that would explain why the violence -often heinous, sometimes fatal - is completely disproportionate to the triggering stimuli. Accidentally spilling another man's beer in a club rammed with bodies hardly justifies a crossed word, let alone a broken glass in the neck and four pints of red on the beer sticky carpet. But, in the buzz of a busy nightclub it is just one of the many reasons people will find to enact atrocities on each other. If a spilled beer is going to cost you four pints of blood never make the mistake of chatting up another man's date; it may well cost you all nine.
After a decade of standing under nightclub neon and nearly losing my faith in human nature I had the growing realisation that violence was not the answer. It is a cruel and ugly language, the parley of ignorant men, but a means of discourse non the less and when you are dealing with the hard of thinking some times a quick punch in the eye is better understood that a lengthy over-the-table-negotiation. Some people
- even despots and dictators on the world stage
- will listen to nothing less.
Witnessing man's inhumanity to man is enough to turn even the hardiest stomach but my personal renaissance only began after I nearly killed someone in a car park match fight. I won't insult your intelligence by glazing over my actions with the egg-wash of weak rationalisation. The situation - one that should have found a negotiable solution - started innocently enough. A local man and martial artist of some repute was consistently and blatantly challenging my authority and testing my patience by refusing to drink up at the end of the night. For three months I tried to be nice, laced my requests to drink up with politeness and respect, all to no avail. He obviously mistook my politeness for weakness and one late Sunday evening - in a fit of arrogance - he barged into me when I was collecting glasses. It was the final insult. My hat tipped I invited him onto the tarmac.
The fight was short and bloody. Although my opponent was a black belt he was ill-prepared for the pavement arena.
When the paramedics were called I knew that I had gone too far, and my capacity to inflict hurt had astounded even me. I felt sure that he was dead when the ambulance took him away under a wool blanket and a flashing blue light. The veil dropped and for the first time I could see exactly what I had become - more specifically what trading in violence had made me. At home I contemplated a bleak future where the here and now promised only prison and the here-after threatened a purgatorial darkness that I could not even begin to imagine. In bed I stroked the warm face of my sleeping wife. I could not believe how beautiful she was, she felt like silk. I got down on my knees and unashamedly prayed to God. "Give me one more chance," I begged. "And I promise that I will turn my life around."
It was the longest night of my life with plenty of time for introspection. There is nothing like the threat of prison and eternal damnation to give you an honest perspective on liberty and life. I realised that I was blessed; a great wife, gorgeous kids and freedom. It doesn't get much sweeter. And I was risking it all for a bastard trade that I had come to hate.
The next day I heard that my sparring partner had pulled through. My prayer had been answered. I kept my part of the bargain and shortly afterwards I left the doors for good.
I found a few things during my ten year sojourn into the dark often criminal world of the bouncer: my courage - fear can be beaten by those with the moral fibre to face it. My destiny - success and happiness is a choice not a lottery. And my limitations - we all find some form of invisible support when what we know as real starts to collapse all around us.
Perhaps ironically and more notably I discovered the futility of violence.
I also lost a few things, my first marriage and the innocence of youth to name but two.
Luckily - unlike many of my peers - I did not forfeit my sanity, my liberty or my life.
Oh, and I got to walk away with both ears.