My Pop Life #197 : My Adidas – Run D.M.C.

My Adidas – Run D.M.C.

My Adidas
walked through concert doors
& roamed all over coliseum floors
I stepped on stage, at Live Aid
All the people gave & the poor got paid
And out of speakers I did speak
I wore my sneakers but I’m not a sneak
My Adidas cuts the sand of a foreign land
with mic in hand I cold took command
my Adidas and me, close as can be
we make a mean team, my Adidas and me
we get around together, rhyme forever
& we won’t be mad when worn in bad weather
My Adidas.
My Adidas.
My Adidas
*

It was September 1986.  My girlfriend Rita Wolf and I had gone on holiday to San Francisco together, and stayed with her friends Lisa & Bryan alongside Alamo Park, picturesque wooden houses around a green square with a view of downtown off to the north.  We were both in our late 20s, working actors, no kids.

Alamo Park, San Fransisco

The plan was to enjoy the city a bit, then hire a car and drive out to Lake Tahoe – I think we’d both been to San Fran before, and explored Alcatraz, Haight-Ashbury, Berkeley and Golden Gate Park, so fancied a trip in a car, one of my favourite things to do in the world.  Hire a car and D R I V E.  I’ve written about a few of these trips before : Lost Highway, America, two songs about travelling through this nation, by Hank Williams and Simon & Garfunkel (My Pop Life #148  and #130 ).

This trip took us east across the Bay Bridge to Oakland and up Highway 80 past El Cerrito.  Terrible memories of Simon Korner and I being trapped with a weird Vietnam vet back in 1976 – a guy with a head so full of shit that he wouldn’t stop sharing with the two teenagers he picked up hitch-hiking.  As the road stretched on and the miles fell away, the memories faded.  Sacramento.  Then Highway 50 to the lake.  Took about 5 hours I reckon.  What a beautiful place Lake Tahoe is.  Fringed by pine and fir trees, it’s at a high elevation and has a number of top ski resorts in the winter months.  We drove around the California side of the lake to the address on the piece of paper (pre-internet or mobile!!) which read

Harrah’s Lake Tahoe, U.S. 50, Stateline, NV

which meant that we were just inside Nevada and that our hotel was also a casino.  We checked in and looked out of the window, which was like this :

and since it was early evening by then, descended to the restaurant to eat.  Imagine our surprise dear reader when it became clear at some point after sitting down and perusing the menus that we were sitting by a stage and that in 15 minutes, the great Donna Summer was going to come on and sing us a few songs.  Extraordinary.  But that is the thing with these casinos – the whole Nevada experience – a show, then gamble gamble gamble.  We’d gone there for the trip, for the lake, the desert, but Donna was a completely delightful shock.  She had a mini-orchestra with the band and performed all the great disco-era songs – or almost all anyway : Bad Girls, Hot Stuff, On The Radio, I Feel Love, She Works Hard For The Money, Love To Love You Baby… she was amazing and in a normal blog, she would be the point of the story.  This is her in that era, singing with Joe Esposito in Sahara, Lake Tahoe :

Amazing right?  It would only be right and fair to remember that around this time, Donna had made a born-again Christian mistake regarding gays and AIDS/HIV, a statement which she regretted for the rest of her life.  She apologised for it in 1989 – apologised to her significantly gay fans, such as my brother Paul, who felt betrayed after lifting her up in the disco years only to be brushed aside as the terrible disease struck in the mid-80s.  The whole Vegas part of a career is odd I think – like a bubble which exists off from reality, where people go to hide and make money, protected by the Mob.  I’m thinking Elvis, Frank, Louis.  Names so big they don’t need a second name.  Donna wasn’t in that bracket, but she was making somebody serious money and had been for over 10 years.

We were very happy to see her.  One of my favourite artists, regardless of her religious shallows.  The following day Rita and I drove around the lake and visited Carson City the state capital, then on to Virginia City, an old Wild West style town in the Nevada desert.

Great.  So far, so travelogue, with the open goal of a live gig by Donna Summer spurned by the blog.  Ye cannot top that young man surely.

Maybe not, but the point of this chapter is hip hop.  By 1986 we’d all heard The Sugarhill Gang and Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, the former lifting Chic‘s ‘Good Times‘ note-for-note with a bippity-boppity rap over the top, the latter painting a vivid picture of New York’s urban decay with the memorable punchline :

“It’s like a jungle sometimes it makes me wonder how I keep from goin’ under”

which Rita and I had altered slightly in our childish schtick to –

“it makes me mumble how I keep from going crumble”

I was bumbling along in 1986 at 29 years of age, done my youth cults, been a hippie, a skinhead, a mod, a punk, a glam rocker.  I dabbled in a fashionista sense in the new romantics style without really embracing the music much – Culture Club, yeah, Duran Duran, nah.  I just didn’t like half of the songs of that cult.  I was into Madness & Elvis Costello, Crowded House & Talking Heads, Kate Bush & The Pogues & The Style Council.  A smattering of african pop – Sound D’Afrique LPs and Fela Kuti, some Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Youssou N’Dour, some soul music courtesy of Randy Crawford, Prince & Sade, bit of Dr John, bit of Laurie Anderson.  Y’know.

Then I heard it.

Barrelling along Interstate 80 coming back into Oakland we’d picked up a local radio station.  A local BLACK radio station.  Sadly segregation in the USA is still practised widely even now in 2017, and certainly was in 1986.  Even today there are very VERY few radio stations that play black AND white music in the same programme.  The fact that it is possible for me to write “black music” and assume that everyone knows what is meant by that is actually pretty depressing to be honest.  Like : google ‘Darius Rucker’ for example.  I’ll tackle it on another blog – but I live in this big stupid segregated world with my black family. I’m white.  We’re humans.  But that’s a whole other subject.  At this point in my short sweet life I was going out with an English Bengali woman,  “whatever” – right ?

tic ta tic tic – a dumbadumdum

A bass-line which came from below the car, below the street, and a hi-hat which was a metallic scratch from a distant satellite dish.  Stretched between these two extremes of sound, a scrunchy crunch like a door slamming & a car crashing – the whip-scratch of a vinyl record being dragged back under a stylus on a turntable, all overlaid with a man’s voice talking about his trainers – in rhythm. That’s it.  A drum-kit & a voice – and a deep deep bass that you could hardly hear, but was inside your bones.  If you listen to this track on a computer, it sounds tinny & trivial, although the rap itself is till tougher than leather – heh heh see what I did there…No,  you have to have the bass, on speakers or headphones.  In a car you get all that top & bottom, and to have this crunching space-age noise with all the clear blue sky in-between each element was perfect, my perfect introduction to hip hop, the new sound of America.

Obviously I was late.

Hip hop had been developing very nicely thank you since The Message, especially in the South South Bronx, Brooklyn and the other boroughs of New York City.  Run-D.M.C. were on their 3rd LP by the time this Pauline conversion hit me & the shining light came down from above and converted me to the five elements of hip hop (9 or 4?  5 for me) which I would immerse myself in over the following years.  I was hooked after one song.  This was like the legend of heroin or crack – one puff and you’re hooked For Life Mate!  It was true after all.

Graffiti is one of the five elements of hip hop – 5Pointz, Long Island City

I bought the album Raising Hell within days, with Peter Piper, It’s Tricky, You Be Illin’, the mighty Walk This Way.  It is no exaggeration at all to say that this LP changed my life completely.  If you were mean you might say that I appropriated this black culture and made it mine, stole it, used it, colonised it.  If you were me you might say that this was my culture too, because all the culture I receive and have always received is mine to have and to hold.  It comes from somewhere of course, but where it goes is everywhere.  We’re sharing, aren’t we?

Yes, I was late late late- but what had I missed ?  The first Run-D.M.C. album called simply Run-D.M.C. (above) had been released two years earlier in 1984 and had a tighter, sparser, punchier sound than the hip hop of that era which was still decidedly funky and rolled along with melodic hooks (Kurtis Blow).  They followed that with King Of Rock in 1985.  But even before the 1st album they’d released the seminal single It’s Like That (That’s The Way It IS) with Jason Nevins in 1983 – and this is the groundbreaker sonically.  Those spaces I’d heard on My Adidas were carved out of thin air back in 82-83.

Rev Run, DMC, Jam Master Jay in 1985

Run-D.M.C. come from Hollis in Queens, which is way out past Jamaica, Queens on the Long Island Rail Road (on the way to Long Island where Public Enemy emanate from).   Joseph Simmons (Run) and Darryl McDaniels (DMC) used to rap in the park together, although Simmons had already DJ’d for rapper Kurtis Blow who was managed by his brother Russell Simmons of DefJam Records.  Run and DMC rapped in front of DeeJay Jason Mizell one day in the park – Jazzy Jase he was known at the time – and they all hooked up.  They wouldn’t record anything until they left high school, and Russell Simmons oversaw their first single It’s Like That/Sucker M.C.s at the end of 1983, with Jam Master Jay on the decks as Jason was now known.

The first album broke the mould of hip hop – not only with its sound, but with the style of the band which had come from Jay – Kangol hats, one-colour track suits and sneakers with the laces taken out.  This was “street” and cool, because it came, like later fashion tropes, from prison garb.   But it was the music, the stripped-down, rhythmic interplay between DMC and Reverend Run (who became ordained as an actual minister in 2004), set against the crisp turntabled beats, rockin’ bells & occasional rock guitars produced by Jam Master Jay and producers Russell SimmonsRick Rubin which became an integral part of the bedrock of old-skool hip hop.  I went on to see them live three times in the 1980s, all in London, they were always immense.

hip hop block party in New York City, late 70s

The great tidal wave of hip hop that crashed into my life was partly me doing catch-up on these early days of Run-D.M.C. along with Afrika BambaataKurtis Blow, Boogie Down Productions, LL Cool J, Eric B & Rakim and Public Enemy, Salt’n’Pepa, Roxanne Shanté, Biz Markie, Schooly D, Big Daddy Kane, Kool Moe Dee, The Juice Crew, EPMD and Doug E. Fresh.  A great surge of creativity from the streets.  It was extremely exciting.  And then it was all about keeping up with what was coming out right then in the late 80s – 7A3, N.W.A., De La Soul, The Jungle Brothers, The Beastie Boys, Tone Loc, Queen Latifah, Young M.C., Spoonie Gee, through to Tupac, Ice-T, De La Soul and Master Ace.  I should also mention the British hip hop scene – Richie Rich, Demon Boyz, London Possee, Cookie Crew, Derek B et al.  Rapping even then in an English accent. I would go off a lot of the hip hop in the early 90s after the gold came back, the social comment of PE and KRS-1 got drowned out by the gangsta rap and macho rubbish that followed.  But until 1991 I bought pretty much every single and album that came out, all on vinyl.  Always been an old skool head.

So obsessed did I become with this new music that it occurred to me that it was going to change the world.  A few of us felt the same way – but it must be recorded that the vast majority of people (that I knew at least) :

a) didn’t like hip hop or rap, or whatever it was

b) thought it wouldn’t last longer than a couple of years, and then

c) real music would come back

In contrast to this I was deep in the flow, going forward.  I felt that this was new, like rock ‘n’  roll was new in the 1950s – a new form – and it wasn’t going anywhere.  It was pregnant with possibilities:  musically, as a dance form, in graffiti, in poetry and, I felt very strongly, in my own arena – drama.  It felt inherently dramatic – it felt as if whole dramas could be constructed out of this new speech.  It was thrilling.  My diary for 1986 records a meeting that I had with Paulette Randall in the latter part of this year.  We talked about creating a play about the hippie convoy (my idea) and urban homelessness (Paulette’s idea) using raps between the scenes or maybe even in the scenes (like a musical).  Soon we would take the project to Joint Stock, where I had worked (with Simon Curtis directing) on Deadlines in 1984/85 (see My Pop Life #185 ). Using the same working method, Paulette & I created Sanctuary, a hip-hop musical which would later transfer to Washington D.C.   See My Pop Life #86, My Pop Life #137 for further adventures.

Little did I know that almost 30 years later I’d be watching “Hamilton” at the Public Theatre in New York, before its Broadway run, using all these ideas and more –  like an opera where all the dialogue is rapped.  Brilliant game-changing show. This was my inchoate dream in 1986 – but it had taken this long to become a commercial reality.  It was truly inevitable given the power and dynamism of the form, but perhaps it needed an audience born after 1990 to appreciate it, to allow it to flourish and grow.  Some things change slowly.

I changed quickly though.  I’ve always been a faddist, and I embraced this new fad with an irritating born-again fashion victim’s zeal & passion.  Money would be spent on vinyl.  Gigs would be attended.  Plays would be written.  This LP in particular was hugely influential on my style of rap writing, which would win me writing awards in two years time. Meanwhile Rita & I enjoyed the remainder of our trip to California and got back to London to find that she was expected for work in Manchester the night before.  One bowl of grape nuts later & we were driving up the M6 in my spangled blue Vauxhall Wyvern ‘Eddie’ to Chester Zoo and the set of ‘One By One’.   Rita was in front of the cameras within 20 minutes of arrival as I changed a flat tyre.

As for those Adidas, well, talk about a signpost to the future.  I still have my pair of Adidas Sambas.  It’s impossible now to speak in a generalised way about “hip hop” as you could in the 1980s, it is so diverse and has so many branches & flowers & languages.  Not only do we now live in hip-hop wallpaper, we now live in sneaker ubiquity.  The idea of the label.  Logo as clothing as status.  Never mind beats in a rhyme. The song is a damn commercial for Adidas & Lee denim!!

standin on 2 Fifth St.
funky fresh & yes cold on my feet
with no shoe string in em, I did not win em
I bought em off the Ave with the black Lee denim
I like to sport em that’s why I bought em
a sucker tried to steal em so I caught ’em and I fought ’em
& I walk down the street & I bop to the beat
with Lee on my legs & Adidas on my feet
& now I just standin here shooting the gif
me and D & my Adidas standing on 2 Fifth
My Adidas.
My Adidas.

Tick ta tick tick ~ Badumbadumdum.

The space inside this song is ridiculous.

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My Pop Life #196 : Pullin’ Back The Reins – k.d. lang

Pullin’ Back The Reins – k.d. lang

Out of nowhere this gust of wind 
brushed my hair and kissed my skin 
i aimed to hold a bridled pace 
when with love itself i came face to face

She was our queen in the late 80s when we first met – and on one memorable night in Kentish Town she appeared to be made of golden stardust, towering over the venue, the music, the songs and our lives like a goddess.

Like the young soul I am I became curious & interested in country music around the time that the New Musical Express gave away a free C90 cassette taped to the front cover of its weekly paper perhaps the spring of 1988 – bright yellow I recall, with an exciting playlist from artists I have loved ever since : Nanci Griffith, Randy Travis, Patti Loveless, The Judds, Dwight Yoakum, Lyle Lovett and k.d. lang.   I was rehearsing a weird new drama for the BBC called The Black & Blue Lamp and I’d met Kenneth Cranham (see My Pop Life #177 and My Pop Life #46) which in retrospect was a seriously influential moment in my musical development;  indeed it was a portal.  Ken asked me what I was listening to and we shared and enthused, and two weeks later we were standing with beers in The Half-Moon off Putney Bridge, a wonderfully intimate music venue just south of the river Thames where devotees of this ‘New Country’ were gathered to see Lyle Lovett, supported tonight by k.d. lang & the Reclines.  The country music these bands & the others played was stripped down of orchestration & sweeteners and was a return to traditional  sawdust shit-kickin’ down-home country ‘n’ western music – not that I knew the difference then.  All I knew was Glen Campbell (Galveston), Johnny Cash (A Boy Named Sue, Ring of Fire) and Emmylou Harris & Gram Parsons (Love Hurts, Ooh Las Vegas).   Oh and the New Riders of The Purple Sage.  Hippie country.  Nashville is capital of country music but there were & still are many ways to write and perform a country hit, from Willie Nelson to Taylor Swift.

When k.d. lang came onstage she was a boyish scruff with a hot band, fiddle, pedal-steel and all, but when she opened her mouth to sing – my god – the hairs on the back of my neck literally prickled.  Ken turned around to look at me – yes, I nodded, she’s really good.   I particularly remember her rendition of Three Cigarettes (In An Ashtray) that night, a song from Patsy Cline‘s self-titled first LP in 1957, and a rendition that k.d. performed with compelling languid drama and total authority – we were all sat in the palm of her hand listening to this extraordinary instrument – her voice – swooping & sighing with perfection.  Lyle Lovett the headliner didn’t stand a chance after that frankly, although he was entertaining in a wry twinkly way, the night had already been stolen.

Completely converted, I bought the first LP Angel With a Lariat which was basically what I’d just seen live, discovered that the lady was from Calgary on the Canadian prairies and was about to release an LP of classic country songs produced by Nashville royalty Owen Bradley,  producer of most of Patsy Cline‘s great songs, and many others : Brenda Lee, Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty, Buddy Holly and Gene Vincent among them.  k.d. had tempted him out of retirement and it felt like stamp of approval from the conservative establishment, and a tip of the hat from k.d. herself to the classic ‘countrypolitan’ sound of the late 50s/early 60s, invented by Bradley himself where the hoedown fiddles & honky tonk of basic country were replaced by sweet string pads and choice piano licks. Country went mainstream.

k.d. lang & Owen Bradley, 1988

The resulting LP Shadowland, released later in 1988 was sleek, polished, tasteful and entirely superior music, filled with licks from the great session players of Nashville, and an amazing collaboration.  Surprisingly,  when she put together her own country compilation album Reintarnation in 2006 k.d. lang would only include one song from Shadowland – Don’t Let The Stars Get In Your Eyes.  Who can say why she had gone off this musical high point ?

The following year though was almost all self-penned songs (with her collaborator Ben Mink from the Reclines) – a collection called Absolute Torch and Twang (1989) which has been a favourite of both Jenny and I ever since.  Often camp country tunes performed with gusto and warble, lovely instrumentation, really good songs.  Luck In Your Eyes got a grammy nod I think but my favourite is this one : Pullin’ Back The Reins, a lovely ballad about reticence & control & dignity, not letting the horse of love gallop madly across the prairie with its mane on fire.  Playing the long game, which we were already doing only a year and a bit into the relationship.

She played the song at The Town & Country Club in Kentish Town in May 1990 along with the rest of the album and other favourites including a few knockouts from Shadowland.  It was a shit-kicking country gig, but with the voice of an angel.  She came out like Elvis Presley, with a raunchy lick of hair and a swagger in her hips, a curl of the lip and a smile in her eyebrows.   She was simply dynamite that night.  We moved closer.  She took the guitar off and sang torch style, the extraordinary voice filling the space.  You could hear a pin drop between notes, we were that spellbound.  The rapture in the room was almost too much to bear and Jenny near-fainted, moving back and then actually outside into the street.  I think she had been converted to the infinite delights of Sappho and she looked at me as I had a quick puff of something while she fanned herself back to earth.  We were both shining with devotion.  Wow.  One of the greatest gigs in my museum of recollections.  Outstanding.

Two years later we were married, living in Los Angeles and there was Ingenue on the new CD player regularly, lush, airbrushed harmonies, full of Constant Craving and Miss Chatelaine and a strong move away from country into exquisite pop music.  k.d. lang hasn’t dropped a beat since then to my ears – guaranteed quality with every song she sings – including the LP with Tony Bennett and the Canadian covers record ‘49th Parallel‘ which has songs by Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Ron Sexsmith (but not Rufus Wainwright !?!).   Funny how you lose track of some artists – it was only today that I discovered the 1995 album called All You Can Eat so I bought it and listened.  Magnificent, of course.

So fast-forward to 2009/10 and I’m living with Eamonn up in the hills above the Hollywood Bowl, just off Mulholland Drive.  I started getting fit – the perennial obsession – and without wanting to haunt some sweaty bollocks gymnasium or sit on a static bicycle in an surging class of lycra, or join E in some boxing pain, I decided to walk Runyon Canyon every morning.  Whichever way round I went it was downhill all the way down to Fairfax and uphill all the way back to Mulholland and it is a great workout in the sun.  Wildlife too – hawks, eagles, snakes, chipmunks, all kinds of stuff.  Popular with Hollywood types, some of whom run it, while others just walk the dog or gossip with their mates.  There are various routes and one which ends up going around the back of the canyon into a sweet little path with bushes & butterflies & birds, and naturally I often gravitated to that option.

This was where k.d. lang, somewhat larger than in 1990, would sometimes be walking her dog and talking on the cellphone.  It was cool to share a deserted piece of Canyon with her and although I so so wanted to say hi to her, to talk to her about that flash of lightning in our lives, to thank her for the Half Moon Putney, and all the records,  she always turned gently away perhaps to protect herself against intrusion and so I always honoured that choice and let her be.

What a Queen !

My Pop Life #195 : Do What You Gotta Do – Nina Simone

Do What You Gotta Do – Nina Simone

Man I can understand how it might be
Kinda hard to love a girl like me
I don’t blame you much for wanting to be free
I just wanted you to know
I’ve loved you better that your own kin did
From the very start it’s my own fault
What happens to my heart
You see I’ve always known you’d go…

I have avoided writing about Nina for almost 200 entries now.  Daunting, difficult, mysterious and magnificent, she defies easy category or glib biography, but she has touched me over and over since 1976 when I first heard her.  But now in October 2017 I feel compelled to attempt at least an introduction to the most haunted, most incredible, most heart-breaking performer I ever saw live – on three occasions during the 1980s.

The first occasion I was with my girlfriend Mumtaz Keshani at the Barbican Centre in London.  We’d come to pay homage to the great jazz and blues singer in one of the great halls of England.  It was 1982.  Nina was guided out onto the stage by a male assistant/stage manager/manager/husband?  She settled at the piano and scowled at us.  She wasn’t in the mood.    Over the years I’ve come to realise that she rarely was.  Funnily enough her LP Live In Concert 1964 has one song ‘Go Limp’ when she is clearly enjoying herself.  But this is unusual.  Nina didn’t really specialise in happy songs, or indeed in happiness.  She famously hated My Baby Just Cares For Me which is by some measure her most positive track, mainly because it never earned her any money.   The bouncy jazz standard was written by Donaldson & Kahn and recorded by Simone on her first album in 1958, but languished in obscurity until it was used for a Chanel Number 5 commercial in the mid-1980s and the LP was subsequently re-released by Charly Records, and the single was a hit.  It became a dance-floor favourite, and still is.  (It closed my sister’s 40th birthday party celebration for example, a fact which my brother Paul enjoyed immensely).  But when Nina played it live she usually passed some caustic remark “here’s the song you wanna hear…”

Soon into the show at the Barbican we realised that this was going to be a very particular kind of concert.  Her performance perfectly matched her mood and thus was extremely honest, but her mood was quixotic and combative.  She didn’t appear to be capable of pretending or indeed of singing anything unless she really wanted to.  We got renditions of some of her angry songs – mainly from the 1960s when she was deeply involved in the Civil Rights Movement – Mississippi Goddam (“this is a show tune….the show hasn’t been written for it yet”), See-Line Woman (join in – you can do better than that!)  and the Brecht/Weill Pirate Jenny which was terrifying and magnificent.  The audience cheered and the ghost of a smile troubled her heavy features.  But actually she then stood up to take the applause and proceeded to walk slowly back offstage with some assistance.  The band gamefully struck up a jazz  shuffle but the gaping hole on the stage was undisguised.  Would she come back?  When Nina appeared a few minutes later I swear I could see a slight stain on her blue full-length dress, like water (she took pills) or vodka (she took vodka).   This time she stared at us for a longer period of time and decided we needed a good talking to.  I cannot remember what she said but it was painful and bruised and brooding.  She appeared to resent being there.  Forced to sing songs for money.  She started to play the opening cadences of Randy Newman’s Baltimore from the 1978 LP of the same name –

a fantastic record which includes Everything Must Change, Balm In Gilead, and the hugely affecting Judy Collins song My Father.  Baltimore is one of Newman’s best songs and opens with a simple piano phrase and a sad lonely image, perfect for Nina  :

beat-up little seagull on a marble stair

tryin’ to find the ocean, lookin’ everywhere

when she suddenly stopped dead and announced that she wasn’t playing that song, it was written by a white man.  The atmosphere changed.  It was uneasy, it was thrilling, it was a tightrope walk and we didn’t know if she, or we, would fall.  A few people left which made the rest of us dig in and wait for the undoubted moment or two of illumination which would surely come.  And sure enough among the huge wobbles and disappointing shrugs Nina Simone became more magisterial with each passing minute, one moment surveying us like insects, the next singing her sobbing bluesy delivery with real pain.

My fantasy had been, of course, that she would be the singer-songwriter/interpreter of the classics that I had discovered on the LP Little Girl Blue.  Recorded in 1958 on Bethlehem Records it contains that song My Baby Just Cares For Me, plus Love Me or Leave Me, Little Girl Blue, I Loves You Porgy, You’ll Never Walk Alone.  It’s the classic introduction to the artist.  When she made it she was 26 years old and living in New York.  We’d fallen in love with the record and played it A LOT.  It was much later that I discovered that Nina had been bought out of her royalties for $3000 – about 25 thousand in today’s money – and her decision I understand.  She moved to Colpix Records immediately after this, but when My Baby Just Cares For Me eventually became a huge hit in the 80s she didn’t get a cent.

Back at The Barbican Nina was delivering a sulky version of something I didn’t know, turning in a perfunctory rendition of something I did, and causing quite a number of the audience to leave.  By the time we were half-empty it felt like a defiant decision to stay – those of us who did stay witnessed that rare thing – an artist delivering a perfectly honest live performance, a performance that was a mirror of exactly where she was at in her life – and it wasn’t a good place.  Tired of hiding.  Tired of being managed.  Tired of singing for money.   Towards the end she cheered up and had us clapping and singing along, and she bowed in faux elegance, strangely dainty but unsteady, proud and deeply vulnerable, bloody-minded and unrepentant.

We were on our feet clapping and whistling.  She didn’t come back for an encore.  We knew she wouldn’t.  I can’t remember the rest of the setlist, but she didn’t sing I Loves You Porgy, or Little Girl Blue or Love Me or Leave Me or my very first love : Do What You Gotta Do.

I bought the single from a Soho record shop in my first year at LSE – late 76/early 77 – when I was educating myself in soul music and english law.   The song was the B-side to Ain’t Got No, I Got Life which a mash-up of two songs from the musical Hair and had become a hit single (#2 in the UK) in 1968.  Her performance is extraordinary.  The song was written by the inimitable Jimmy Webb (Galveston, Wichita Lineman) for Johnny Rivers in 1967 and Nina covered it a year later with the same arrangement but with a considerably heavier delivery.  The words are dredged out from her very soul of her bones as she delivers the frankly pathetic final line of the chorus :

Come on back and see me when you can

and she changes the nature of the song from a paean dedicated to a wild sweet firehorse of a free-spirited girl, to a tragic hymn for a weepy slumped & broken woman waving her philandering man off the premises, heartbroken.  It is an extraordinary performance and it has haunted me from the very first time I heard it, and throughout the years since.

It is also, strangely, Nina Simone’s only “soul” record really, based on the arrangement.  She was a jazz singer, a blues singer, a folk singer, a show-tunes singer, a ballad singer, just a singer – and she preferred to be known as a “Freedom Singer”.    I’m fairly sure I put this song on many soul compilation tapes – c90s – and almost certainly on the soul tape I made for Jenny not long after we started ‘dating’.  God knows why – it is utterly inappropriate.

For the young, the young-at-heart and those interested in 21st century pop,  Do What You Gotta Do was sampled heavily on Kanye West’s song Famous in 2016, appearing on his LP The Life of Pablo, although I should note that it isn’t the Nina Simone version, it sounds rather like someone has re-recorded it.

Over the years, as I collected her LPs from the simple beauty of Nina & Piano in 1969 to the majesty of the arrangements on 1965’s I Put A Spell On You (which includes Feeling Good and Ne Me Quitte Pas) I realised that whatever the song, whatever the genre, the same bruised quality is there – the voice wavers, worries, and hangs in the air like a teardrop about to fall from a melancholy eye.  Ne Me Quitte Pas is the Jacques Brel song which is one of her signature performances and which dear Maureen Hibbert sang for me at my 60th birthday party.  In French.  Quite magnificently !

What we are listening to here, every time, is disappointment.  The disappointment of not getting into the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, her dream, because she was black, and forging a career as a cocktail lounge singer instead in Atlantic City, playing blues, jazz, classical, calling herself Nina rather than use her real name Eunice Waymons and risk her mother finding out that she had fallen so low.  She carried this disappointment all her life and, along with the anger that flowed deep beneath, it imbues every song she sang.   But there is something else.   She had awful luck with partners, both business and romantic.  The royalties she never earned, the sometime abusive marriage to Andrew Stroud who became her manager.  But again her wounds seem deeper than this too.  There are terrible stories of her walking naked through hotel corridors holding a knife, stories of despair so deep, and sadness so enveloping that her very survival seems to be a triumph.  Watching her walk this line onstage, so vulnerable, so defiant, so talented and yet so churlish was always an extremely moving experience.  She demanded worship, but we applauded her bravery.

I saw her twice more after that show and the same feelings were repeated : awe, concern, amazement and yes, disappointment.  She could share that all right.  The second time was at The Dominion Theatre in London’s Tottenham Court Road with Rita Wolf in 1986 when she stood at the front of the stage and shouted at us all with her hands on her hips, the Priestess of Soul, the Queen of Disdain commanding us to kneel and pray.  She was immense.  She was so much better, physically, mentally, spiritually than she’d been in 1982.  Spellbinding is how I remember it.

The final time I saw her was at Ronnie Scott’s in 1987, again with the small band, drums, bass and Nina on piano.  It was intimate and all the more excruciating for it.  She was extremely perfunctory and tired, complaining about the heat, the theft of her music royalties and other betrayals, her hands playing those heavy chords which so often supported her weary aching voice.  It was like witnessing something private and painful, but was of course, public and captured for all eternity on the LP Live At Ronnie Scotts released that same year.

We are thrilled when our heroes and heroines put their souls on the line, bare all for their art, sob into the microphone or disintegrate onstage before our very eyes.  All for the price of a ticket.  But is it an act ?  Or a craft ?   Nobody can fall apart every night on cue can they ?

Well yes they can – ask my wife Jenny Jules who I’ve seen do it night after night.  It breaks my heart.  Jenny saw Nina towards the end of her life at the Festival Hall when she lit a cigarette onstage and nobody dared ask her to put it out.   Nina Simone had the craft as a singer, a songwriter, an interpreter, a performer – but she couldn’t hide her pain when it was real.  And when it wasn’t there, she didn’t act it – perhaps she couldn’t at this late stage.  Her renditions were often perfunctory and irritable.  Nevertheless, we still lined up to pay to see her.  She took medication for depression for most of her life and appeared, from the outside at least, to stagger from disaster to despair and back.  She lived in Barbados, Liberia, Holland, France and Switzerland after quitting the USA.  She counted Lorraine Hansbury, Miriam Makeba and Martin Luther King among her friends.  She used to threaten people with a shotgun and once fired it at a neighbour’s pool, hitting a teenage boy.   I think on reflection she was disappointed primarily with herself, like we all are, and couldn’t quite pretend not to be.

I have more to write about Nina Simone, but it’ll have to wait for now.  While searching for the pictures to accompany this blog I found this jewel of Nina enjoying her breakfast in bed somewhere in the world, and smiling.  I’m glad she had some genuine moments of joy as well.

My Pop Life #194 : Shhh/Peaceful – Miles Davis

Shhh/Peaceful – Miles Davis

*

Probably late 1977, or early 1978.  Second year of my Law Degree at LSE, having spent the summer at the Edinburgh Festival with the National Student Theatre Company and realised I was at the wrong college, studying the wrong subject.   A summer recorded faithfully I think in My Pop Life #140.  Nick Broadhurst was the only other LSE student in that summer group, in the year above me at college;  a world-weary air of cultured ennui, smoking Hamlet mini-cigars, wearing real shirts, real shoes, a wry smile playing around his mouth, an authoritative disdain for other people’s opinions, stupidity and bad art.  I both liked him and thought him a little arrogant, although I was exactly the same I think.   He’s an opera director now.  We’ve lost touch.  I tried a couple of times recently but he’s scorching his earth.  Once again.

My 2nd year at LSE looking out at Fitzroy St aged 20

photograph by flatmate Norman Wilson aged 20

A Manchester lad without the accent, Nick introduced me to Miles Davis when I was still a teenager.  I was glittering with punk spikes by then, eye-make-up and nail varnish, but that was just a pose, in reality I didn’t know who I was.  A pop tart.  Jack of all, master of a half.  I’ve still got no idea really.  But getting stoned of an evening was a serious business in those days and the soundtrack was key.  The LP in question was called In A Silent Way, the sleeve was perfect for rolling joints on and it was Nick’s LP of choice, the first selection.  The ultimate cool sound for coming up.  You can talk across the music without feeling that you’re missing anything.  You can play the same side of the album twice or three times in a row without feeling any damage.  It’s a groove, only limited by the length of the LP side – there’s a song on side A : Shhhh/Peaceful, and another one on side B : In A Silent Way/It’s About That Time.  Which makes it sound like 4 songs.  They’ve blended into two, trust me.  The Wiki page says there’s three on each side but Whatever yeah.  It’s continuous ambient sound.  Although the record is undeniably cool it has an urgent, insistent vibe which the trumpet notes of Miles Davis puncture with their sweet sharp tones.  It’s a very thrilling thing.  I’m sure people who know about jazz have written at length about this album, for me it triggers a time and a place, and a person.

So we were back at LSE doing our academic degrees.  We decided to do a play to keep up morale (all the other students of that Edinburgh summer had gone back to RADA, Bristol Old Vic and Drama Centre etc) and we settled on Waiting For Godot by Samuel Beckett.   We read it aloud once with Christian Hodiege, an economics student who would play Estragon, and a woman called Shelley ? I think who played the slave Lucky.  Pozzo was played by an American student whose name has evaporated into the mists of the late 1970s, and I was Vladimir.   It was funny, mysterious, simple and yet ambiguous.  And possibly obvious too, although I think we missed that.  The next stage was a two-week series of improvisations based on the material facts of Godot – two men waiting by a tree for Godot, who never appears.  Only Pozzo and his slave Lucky appear. Then leave.  Essentially nothing happens.  Our improvisations were hopelessly useless and brought us no nearer to this play or how to approach it.  I can say with authority now that improvisation isn’t a way in to Beckett.  Hahaha.

With some relief we returned to the text and stood it on it’s feet immediately.  The intricate stage directions concerning the bowler hats gave us a mighty clue to the silent comedy of existential horror which the play examines.  Or, Laurel & Hardy.

We staged the show in the Old Theatre at LSE – probably 3 performances in all, and it was generally felt to be a success.  We did a version of the play.  All the actors had whiteface and I have pictures of it somewhere, but not here and not now.

The following term we decided to stage another play, this time John Guare’s, absurd off-broadway hit Muzeeka written in 1968.  I cannot remember any of the rest of the cast, but I think Christian and Shelley were both present once more.  I played the lead chap who at one point visits a prostitute and pays for a ‘Chinese Basket Job’.  This involved me climbing onto the top deck of a bunk bed while a spinning basket (rather like an upturned chinese conical hat with a hole in it) containing a semi-naked woman is lowered from the ceiling onto my thrusting sexual organs – thankfully not exposed.  On the first night, the rope snapped and the Chinese Basket containing Shelley dropped down onto me, thankfully missing my gonads by millimetres but causing extreme mirth and merriment in the audience and utter humiliation for myself.  I decided in that horrible second to manfully act on and make impotent pumping movements into this blasted basket containing my poor fellow actress. Yes, I’m the Great Pretender.

Thankfully the rest of the show was more acceptable, and my old schoolfriend and drummer Patrick Freyne said he particularly enjoyed the bit when I said I leaped onto the 3rd rail to see what electricity tastes like.  I think the simple fact that my public humiliation in front of peers students and academics did not put me off acting for life is a testament to my newly-awoken vocation.   We all drank and smoked that night – in my memory Christian (who was from Freiburg in der schwarzwald) was a great lover of jazz, and he and Nick both enjoyed Miles Davis.

I had many other adventures at the LSE of course, such as detailed in My Pop Life #113  when the Sex Pistols were the only game in town; or the fun I had down on the Thames with the late great Viv Stanshall before he played the Old Theatre (is it Rococo? in My Pop Life #77 ) with others still to come no doubt.   If I can remember them.  Such a long time ago.  Before my time really.

Nick left LSE the summer of 1978, and I had one year remaining, the year when traditionally the slacker student puts some effort into their studies to grapple back those lost years and get themselves a decent degree.   I directed a play and took part in an Occupation of the Registry over School Fees.   “We saw you in there Ralph Brown” said the Registrar after the whole event was over – we’d slept in the Registry for days at a time and brought the administration of the college to a complete standstill.   Can’t remember the outcome at all.  However : sticking with absurd one-act plays from New York I’d selected Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story, set on a bench in Central Park and cast Christian as the tormented lead character Jerry.  He was brilliant, but then did his finals and left LSE to become an economist back in Germany.  I’ll always remember that strange sense of helplessness on the first night, my job as director done, the cast taking over and delivering the show, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it.  It’s completely organic.  Although the director is lauded in the theatre, they all feel the same on first night.   There are notes sessions of course in the days that follow but they can’t be too dramatic or revolutionary.  The show is now set.  The grip has to be relinquished.  Of course there are always exceptions to this rule as I discovered when I played Macbeth in Liverpool (see My Pop Life#108).

Nick was very supportive of my directing endeavours and came to see The Zoo Story.  He also came to see another production that I directed with Jenny my wife back in 1990 in Ladbroke Grove – another NY play called Danny & The Deep Blue Sea.  I’m wondering if that’s the last time I saw him.

Nick Broadhurst

Our shared ambition back at college was to leave the London School Of Economics behind, but only after completion of our respective degrees, and it was a solid glue to base our friendship on.  I was going out with Mumtaz, born in Aden (now Yemen) of Pakistani heritage, schooled in Kashmir and the LSE.  Nick was courting Kalsang, born in Tibet but exiled when a young girl to Dharamsala, India, then taken to boarding school in England and thence to the LSE.

Mumtaz Keshani around 1980-81

They would visit us under the eaves in Taj’s loft space in Finsbury Park and watch Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe battle it out for Wimbledon, Taj and I supporting McEnroe and Nick & Kalsang supporting Borg.  Things got quite frayed I recall the year that McEnroe won.   Taj would cook keema peas with naan bread, basmati rice & daal with aloo gobi, yoghurt and salad.  We would get stoned.  Nick would smoke his blasted Hamlet cigarillos and we’d be on Silk Cut or Benson & Hedges.  Kalsang never smoked.  We’d listen to Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Earth Wind & Fire and The Clash.  We’d laugh.  We’d argue.  Nick liked to argue.  So did I.  He was extremely rude once talking about Kalsang.  Horrible, really humiliating. He defended it too.  So weird.  They got married soon after that in Hackney and bought a house, had two children.  Mumtaz and I lasted another few years then I left her at the age of 29 and moved out to a council flat in Bow (via my friend Simon’s).

Kalsang and Nick definitely stayed in touch with Mumtaz, and I recall less so with me, but perhaps just a judgemental word or two left that impression, but in any event, Nick started a small opera company doing perfectly-formed studio productions with a string quartet and actors who could sing.  It was called Music Theatre London and Nick asked me to be on the board which I was happy to do.  For another post I suspect.

I hope he’s OK.  Mumtaz still sees Kalsang now and again.  The kids are all grown up.  Probably got kids themselves.  Maybe they’ve already discovered Miles Davis.

In A Silent Way was recorded in one session by producer Teo Macero on February 18th 1969.  In addition to Miles’ usual band of the previous few years – namely Tony Williams on drums, Wayne Shorter on soprano saxophone, Herbie Hancock on piano (Chick Corea also contributes) and Dave Holland on bass (who’d replaced Ron Carter the previous year) – the young John McLaughlin is on electric guitar who’d flown in from England the previous day, and Joe Zawinul appears on electric organ.

Tony Williams

Dave Holland

Wayne Shorter

Miles Davis & Herbie Hancock

Tony Williams went on to form his own band and the remainder stayed to record Bitches Brew in 1970, with the addition of many more players.

The music they played that night sounds like early electro-ambient groove, way way ahead of its time – neither rock nor jazz, moving towards fusion like his previous albums but not quite there yet.  Bitches Brew was just around the corner, but In A Silent Way is quieter, and for me at least, more affecting.

 

My Pop Life #193 : People Make The World Go Round – The Stylistics

People Make The World Go Round – The Stylistics

But that’s what makes the world go ’round
The up and downs, a carousel
Changing people’s heads around
Go underground young man…

Every Thursday morning I get woken by the trash collectors outside the front yard. Making slow progress up Carlton Avenue, throwing black bin liners full of crap into the back of the truck, chatting, making scraping sounds, thuds, following the slowly moving truck up the street.  There’s something calming about how this happens with clockwork regularity, and this morning I woke after a marvellous night’s sleep – the best for some weeks indeed – and retired to the back room where the sunlight hadn’t quite reached thanks to the giant church edifice at the bottom of the garden.  Cats came to join me in contemplation as I felt gratitude for the simple regular domestic details of life without fear, without stress (pretending!) without debt (hmmm).   My brain was calm, wandering through the concept of exotics pets (wow I hate this trend SO MUCH, please leave them where they are);  the human appetite which must be tempered at every turn – no sugar, no meat, no fat, no smoking, no adultery, no gambling, no fighting, no envy, no stealing the same old story told and retold generation after generation in every culture every religion every century as the world turns and the trash man collects every Thursday.

Russell Thompkins Jr in the early 70s

This song begins with the line “Trash man didn’t get the trash today…. and why because they want more pay”.  The rhythm of life has been disturbed.  But the rhythm of the song has already been established as a 4/4 interrupted by a 2/4 every now and again (I haven’t counted it out).  A beautiful arrangement reminiscent of Bacharach, but emanating from the minds of Thom Bell and Linda Creed in early 1970s Philadelphia.  The song opens with the wind blowing through wind chimes as the bass and the keys gives out an urgent pulse, the strings and drums arrive together with the off-beat marimba and vibraphone as the exquisite voice of Russell Thompkins Jr tells us the tale of urban life – pollution, strikes, shares tumbling, long hair gets a mention, rich v poor, it’s a classic social snapshot which was in vogue at this time – think Papa Was A Rolling Stone, Wake Up Everybody, What’s Going On and so on.  Black music had worn a social conscience on its sleeve since the riots of the late 60s, the murder of Martin Luther King, the fact that many artists had fulfilled their contracts and demanded more control (Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder), and were writing about what they saw around them – Marvin Gaye’s brother had come back from Vietnam and they’d spent days talking together before he wrote his magnum opus.

Thom Bell

It’s easier to define things (incorrectly) in decade generalisations – 60s soul vs 70s soul but actually the break comes in 1968 with James Brown’s I’m Black & I’m Proud. Soul music had started to introduce the orchestra in the late 1960s at Motown with Diana Ross’ Someday We’ll Be Together and Reach Out And Touch, Isaac Hayes had broken it all down with the LP Hot Buttered Soul in 1969, drenched in orchestration and stretched out to glory on every song and opening the door of soul music to anyone who had bigger ideas for the sound.  Cellos !  Violas !  Orchestration became the name of the game and over the next five years and large number of extremely good soul records were produced – largely, I have to admit, in Philadelphia PA.  A studio run by Thom Bell alongside Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff who created the Philly Sound – Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes with the outstanding vocals of Mr Teddy Pendergrass who would go on to be the soundtrack for a million conceptions, The O-Jays in their Love Train, still playing today (I saw them in Brooklyn a couple of years ago with Rita Wolf my ex-girlfriend from the 80s), Lou Rawls, Billy Paul, The Intruders, MFSB (Mother Father Sister Brother) the houseband with their huge orchestrated instrumental hit TSOP (The Sound Of Philadelphia), McFadden & Whitehead and of course The Stylistics – who were actually on another Philly label Avco Records.  

Leon Huff, Thom Bell, Kenny Gamble – TSOP

Later we would get the great Barry White from Los Angeles, Wattstax where Isaac Hayes ruled, The Three Degrees, The Detroit Emeralds, The Jacksons, all utilising the full orchestra for their sound, all fantastic.  I’m working off the top of my head here because the internet is down, but I think that the first soul hit to use strings in such a featured way is The Delfonics’ La La Means I Love You, again from 1968 (the watershed year when the world turned a little more sharply: Street Fighting Man. Vietnam. And so on and so forth.)  But the first ?? No this must be mistaken.  It was however and anyway one of the first productions from Thom Bell for the Philly Groove label (previously Cameo/Parkway) in Philadelphia, and set the template for The Stylistics and The Spinners, and indeed Philadelphia International.  Massively influential, it all led, of course, to disco, which dominated the music scene at the close of the decade.

The Delfonics with Thom Bell in 1970

The Stylistics had an incredibly lush sound and their first LP – called, with predictable and satisfyingly clockwork regularity – “The Stylistics”,  yielded an embarrassment of riches – every song is superb, and five or six of them were hit singles : Stop Look Listen To Your Heart, Betcha By Golly Wow, You Are Everything (also a hit for Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross), You’re A Big Girl Now and People Make The World Go Round.   All but one written by Creed and Bell it was a perfect marriage of melody, voice, arrangement and soul.  Their second LP a year later was equally fecund – Stone In Love With You, Break Up To Make Up, Peek-A-Boo, You’ll Never Get To Heaven – all with the same signature slow groove lush orchestration and extraordinary voice of Thompkins.  The 3rd LP gives us Rockin’ Roll Baby the title track and the magnificent You Make Me Feel Brand New.  Then Thom Bell moved on and they floundered somewhat. On their 4th record they harnessed the power of Van McCoy to create Can’t Give You Anything, a song which hit the charts in England in 1975 and which I wrote about in My Pop Life #70 .   It’s a magnificent run of music.

That incredible first Stylistics album : “The Stylistics

When I was driving bandmates Glen Richardson and Tom White up to Liverpool last month (a prestigious gig for us, performing the Sgt Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour albums for their 50th anniversary at the wonderful Philharmonic Hall) we chatted music most of the way up – it was a pre-Bank Holiday Friday and the journey took 10 monster hours, frying our brains.  But we had a half-decent soundtrack so everything was all right.  Glen asked at one point “in a perfect world, which tribute band would you want to play in?”  Tom, being a young 30-something fella (previously produced 4 LPs with his brother Alex as Electric Soft Parade, a couple with British Sea Power members as Brakes, many solo LPs now with The Fiction Aisle) chose American indie band Guided By Voices.  Although I’d heard of them I couldn’t name you a single song, and neither could Glen.  Such are generation gaps.  I cannot for the life of me remember what Glen chose (how odd), but I said ‘orchestral soul from the early 1970s‘ – at which point the iPod, which had been listening closely to this verbal duel, proceeded to play a number of these  songs such as If You Don’t Know Me By Now and Could It Be I’m Falling In Love, including this one from those Stylistics, plus Love TKO from Teddy Pendergrass and we wondered whether Me & Mrs Jones was about adultery or cocaine, and how iPods can do this kind of thing.

The song worked its magic again last week, driving around Guadeloupe with Adjoa Andoh, Roz Eleazar and her sister Sai not even two weeks ago.  We needed some healing and escape for on the previous Saturday Roz, her boyfriend Gabe and sister Sai, Larrington Walker and I had gone to the beach down in Malendure to explore the Jaques Cousteau Reserve.  We’d got separated (2 persons per kayak) and my boat had inexplicably swerved off to the Jardin Japonais an underwater coral reserve which was stupendously beautiful, but not Pigeon Island where the others had gone.  I lost my friends, swam with the turtles for a bit and then upon returning to the hotel found out that Larrington had died face down snorkelling off Pigeon Island.  I’d seen the ambulances and Gendarmerie Plongeuse but hadn’t asked what was up.  The girls were calm that evening, relating how they’d seen Larrington lying on the beach as if asleep.  Someone else had pulled him out of the water.  They’d given statements to the police, and traded versions over the whisky and beer.  The rest of the cast and crew – guest suspect (like Roz, Adjoa and I) Osy Ikhile, Marc Elson boom, director Sarah were in shock too.  It is a notoriously difficult place to shoot – the heat, the humidity, the mosquitos, but this was another level.  Death in Paradise.  He was 70 years old, but Jo Martin told me on the Sunday that he was fit and swam a kilometre every day.  That’s like an hour of swimming.  We vowed not to speak to the press if somehow it leaked out and they wanted a story for their headline.  We drank ourselves into a stupor that night.  The following day was numb.  We stayed in the hotel, perched on the side of the mountain, a decision was made not to shoot on the Monday out of respect.  So we had a weird day off and by now Adjoa had arrived to the news that her colleague had passed on.  Monday came and I rented a car after breakfast and set up the ipod with a recently created playlist called simply PHILLY.  It played us all the way around to Port Louis and back – two 90-minute drives to a small community on the low-lying sister island Grand Terre and a ghost town with but one restaurant open – Dominican – with tremendous fish (and lentil stew for the vegans) and an almost-deserted beach just past the old cemetery with pure white golden sand and trees right down to the water line.

Adjoa, Roz, Sai in Port Louis, Guadeloupe

We swim in the warm Caribbean water and Adjoa and I both step on sea urchins, receiving a little parting gift in the soles of our feet which the intrepid Saireeta pulls out the following day with tweezer and unerring eye.  It is on the way home that The Stylistics record comes on People Make The World Go Round, and Adjoa swoons and sings along – it reminds her of her youth in the 1970s – we immediately chop it back and play it twice.  And although Roz and Sai are both way younger than us and not fully indulging in the nostalgia-fest of Philly, like we are in the front seats, nevertheless they are enjoying the sweet soul sounds of the seventies and healing along with us for we are in mourning after all.   And by the time we return people are preparing for Hurricane Irma which MAY OR MAY NOT make landfall on Guadeloupe on Wednesday morning.  Someone asks me if I’ve ever worked on a show before where someone has died, and although my memory is unreliable I think in fact that I have not.   And clearly I wasn’t supposed to experience this death fully either, for despite spending breakfast with Larrington and meeting him on the beach, I was swerved away by the captain of my boat (speaking French not English) and thus was not a material witness either to the police or to Larrington’s son Alandro who arrived later that same day.  I did in fact speak to Alandro briefly and gave him the photograph below which was the last picture of Larrington, sitting in the kayak paddling toward his ultimate destiny.

Larrington Walker, rest in peace

But People do actually make the world go round don’t they?  The news will always be full of despair.  Now and again the trash man will not collect the trash.  But world will not crumble (Gibraltar may crumble the Rockies may tumble – they’re only made of clay..) because people will continue to make the world go round, and my love is here to stay.  This morning I rediscovered the simple joy of doing nothing as the sun cracked through the window and lit a splinter of floor which Roxy examined and found to be good. BoyBoy was on my lap looking at me with such love in his eyes as I stroked his tummy.  I could hear the odd car horn from the street outside, but they disturbed me not for I had found my life.    These moments of peace have a variety of names – smell the roses, breathe, gratitude, but how wonderful that they tend to arrive in moments of pressure to remind me that stuff happens and life goes on.

I always loved this song.  It’s on The Stylistics Greatest Hits which I had at college on vinyl.  I’ve never seen them live, and now there are two versions doing the rounds (there’s only one with Russell Thompkins Jr though called The New Stylistics).  But then we went to see Stevie Wonder in 2008 at the O2 in London, just after we’d come back from our intrepid China trip, seeing my brother Paul in Shanghai and catching some asian flu bug in a river near Yangshuo (not Jenny, just me since she didn’t jump into the river.  It looked nice.  To me).  I was knocked out.  Various blood tests were coming back negative – you can only ask a yes/no question to a blood test : Is It Pneumonia ?  NO.  We eventually asked nine questions and they were all no.  By then the shadow on my lungs had gone.  But for Stevie Wonder it was touch and go.  I’d been bedridden since getting back, weak as a kitten.  Had to see Stevie though. Non-negotiable lifetime moment.  So I asked dear Rory Cameron, guitarist with the Brighton Beach Boys if he would be chauffeur for the night for a fee and drive my car up to Greenwich for the gig.  Rory’s tale is still a fresh scar on the band since he is no longer with us and lives in Bury St Edmunds.  I may get around to telling it one day.  In 2008 all was well and there was nothing we wouldn’t do for each other.  Inside the arena we found we were in the 12th row, which is pretty damn good.  Stevie had no support and opened with Miles Davis All Blues from A Kind Of Blue.  It was going to be a slightly different kind of gig !  He also played some Herbie Hancock, some Michael Jackson and this song by The Stylistics, in among his own treasures – and he could’ve played for 25 hours only singing his own songs…and so it only remains for me to note that the song has also been covered by a young Michael Jackson in 1972 (with different lyrics!) on his marvellous 2nd album ‘Ben’.

I just said to Jenny – if that day comes when I cannot move my hands and my voice is gone and you can only rely on guesswork to establish what it is I need.  You know.  That day.  (No. Never that day will come ! )  C’mon now people.  We all gonna die.  Some will fade away others will Snap !  done.  Anywaze – I said to Jenny, said I to her : When That Day Comes, then Just Know that Chocolate Raisins and The Stylistics will always be the correct choice.

 

 

 

My Pop Life #192 : Hang On In There Baby – Johnny Bristol

Hang On In There Baby – Johnny Bristol

Now that we’ve caressed,
a kiss so warm and tender,
I can’t wait ’til we’ve reached
that sweet moment of surrender.
We’ll hear the thunder roll,
feel the lightning strike,
At a point we both decided to meet,
the same time tonight…
*

 

It’s a classic of course.  Great early 70s orchestral soul, one of my favourite genres – Love Train by the O’Jays, If You Don’t Know Me By Now by Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, Never Ever Gonna Give You Up by Barry White, People Make The World Go Round by the Stylistics.  This one by Johnny Bristol who worked at Motown in the 60s and wrote Someday We’ll Be Together for Diana Ross always reminds me of Jo McInnes, dear dear Jo and she always reminds me of Lee Ross her man.  They go together like bread and cheese, like G7th and C major, like Adam and Eve.  Jo and Lee.  We never say Lee and Jo.   Just how it is.  Met them in Brighton in the late 90s/early 2000s – the noughties or naughties if you prefer.  I couldn’t care less.  Both great actors, but both with other gas in the tank – Lee is a wonderful songwriter and Jo is a fantastic director.  They quickly became part of our Sunday bohemia sessions which had been in Amanda Ooms‘ flat in Hove (see My Pop Life #14 ) up until May 2004 when she moved back to Sweden.  We – the gang – tried to pick up the baton and run with it.  We met in each other’s houses to drink and eat, and sometimes the preferred venue to eat was a pub – the traditional pub roast on a Sunday goes on all day, but inside information is required as to where, and when, and who does the best mixed veg/nut roast/yorkshire puds. Ah Brighton….

Reasons why Brighton was a terrible place to live in 2005 :

Lucy Jules, Ralph Brown, Daisy Nell Robertson

Jo & Lee both have a passionate intensity mixed with genuine love of the work that we do, conjoined always with proper laughing.  They like to laugh.  Others in bohemia should be named and shamed I guess : Paul Gunter, percussionist and Stomper and can-do man who had separated months earlier from  Amanda. Will Matthews and Catherine Walker – he a musician from the band Lowfinger who had just split up and who was moving into teaching music, and she a vibrant Irish actress moved over from Dublin.  Sadly a marriage not destined to stay the course.   Jo Thornhill, can-do-woman and producer, moved down from Manchester with her husband Andy Baybutt, cameraman, director and producer.  They would separate some years later.   Jimmy Lance and Daisy Nell Robertson, actor and giant hair model going out with producer and Enid Blyton glamourpuss.  They would split about a year later.  And Jenny’s sister Lucy Jules, singer, actress, songwriter, with her boyfriend Robbie Webster-Reed, sound technician to the stars, also destined to separate as the years passed by.   And in July of 2004, just after Amanda left town, our nephew Thomas Jules had moved in with us, down from Harlow.  He had just finished with 3rd Edge, a pop band who’d charted a few times in the early noughties and was now writing, singing back-up, DJing, living life.  And I must also mention Mr Tim Lewis who had come down for Jo Thornhill’s birthday party in May 04 and fallen in love with our dirty mad compassionate drunken tolerant fancy-dress gay town.  He’d be moving down one day if he could just escape from Lewisham and the T-shirt factory…   The gang.  Bohemia we called it pretentiously, proudly.  We cooked we smoked we drank we danced.   What a fucking fantastic group of people.  I still love them all, each and every one.

Tim Lewis, Catherine Walker, Jo McInnes 2005

Shortly thereafter Lee and Paul and Will, who were playing together on some songs, asked me if I wanted to join and jam.  Paul had a stand-up piano in his house in Kemp Town so we convened there.  I brought along the song I’d been learning that week : Dan Penn & Chips Moman’s Do Right Woman, Do Right Man which was originally and outstandingly sung by Aretha Franklin.  Great song.  Aretha had just signed for Atlantic Records in 1965 and Jerry Wexler sent her down to Muscle Shoals, Northern Alabama to record with the session guys down there to capture that smokey raw southern soul sound that was coming from Memphis via Stax Studios, and Muscle Shoals. Aretha ended up recording only one song there (I’ll Never Love A Man, to be blogged at some later date for it is a fantastic story!) and this song was started but never finished so got cut back in New York City along with the rest of the LP.  Why am I telling you all this when Lee pronounced fairly quickly after I’d played it through one time that “we weren’t doing any covers”, whilst agreeing with Will in new-age manful ways that Do Right Woman was a perfect tune for this band.    Since I played in a pure covers band called The Brighton Beach Boys with Paul at this point I felt slightly judged and yet it was Lee’s band clearly and he could draw whatever lines in the sand he wanted to, and we could take it or leave it, same as any band.  I took it.  Do Right Woman remained as a chord chart and we all got a paper copy of Insurmountable Loving to learn instead.

Lee Ross, Andy Baybutt, Dublin 2005

Like all of Lee’s songs it was quite stunningly great and we set about learning them one by one, rehearsing to within an inch of our jeans, over and over, vocal harmonies, licks, cadences, chord changes.  We called ourselves Butterfly McQueen after the other black actress in Gone With The Wind, the one who played Prissy (Hattie McDaniel won the best supporting actress Oscar in 1939 for playing Mammy, the first black actor to win a statuette).  The other fellas in the band were actor Jason Hughes on guitar and assistant director Simon Hedges on bass – we all sang backing vocals to Lee, although Will sang a few of his songs too.  We loved rehearsing originally – the songs were amazing, actually brilliant songwriting, lyrically, dynamically, melodically, everything. We looked forward to rehearsing.  We drilled those fucking songs until we could sing them with one arm behind our backs and blindfold.  We had a date in the diary – Paul’s 40th birthday, the following August. But first we had Jenny’s birthday in December.

Lucy Jules, Daisy Robertson, Andy Baybutt, Jo McInnes, mementos of France ’98  and loads of vintage peeling wallpaper, 12.12.2004

Jo Thornhill & Catherine Walker 12.12.04

We’re in 2004 and our parties were quite superb in those days.  Not bragging, they just were.   But this was to be the last one.  The wallpaper hadn’t been fixed since we moved in, and layers could be seen dating back to – when ?  1930s at least.  We’d quite enjoyed the effect but it was time to fix up.  I don’t think we discussed it together as a final party, but Jen put the word out to bring your party drugs (we didn’t participate obviously(><) and the final revellers left at 5am.  The hours up until then had been a whirl of drink and dancing mainly with Jenny and I sharing DJ duties most of the night, and although others may need a shout I cannot for reasons of inebriation remember who they were.  The pictures tell their own story.   Joy.

Sharon Henry & Ralph Brown 12.12.04

Will Matthews 12.12.04

When Hang On In There Baby was selected by Jenny I suspect she knew the effect it would have on Jo, Little Jo as we called her to separate her from Jo Thornhill.  A yell of delight, a punching of the air, a spin, a shimmy, an invitation for us all to join her.  We did.  One of those moments that lifted us together into a delirious lubricious rhythmic pulse, locked in, celebratory, sharing, an ensemble of love.

Jenny Jules and Catherine Walker, 12.12.04

Lucy Jules and Robbie Webster-Reed, 12.12.04 

A year earlier Jo and Lee had been the only visitors to our treetop eyrie in Griffith Park, Los Feliz while we renewed our Green Cards.  They were on tour with Sarah Kane’s 4:48 Psychosis, an intense show they’d done at the Royal Court.  Jo McInnes is one of those dear people that you understand within seconds of meeting her, she is there, with you, for you, while you share a few moments of time together.  It’s remarkable how rare that is in retrospect.  Jo is an extraordinarily good director – and the first time I trod the boards since 1990 was in a show called Christmas by Simon Stephens that she directed at the Bush Theatre in 2004.  I had a walk-on part which involved doing a magic trick at the bar of a pub, ie drinking a pint of lager.  Tough gig.  My online moniker of choice “magicman” came from this moment – I think 2004 was the early innocent days of the internet and I was well in there, especially on the Readers Recommend page….and MySpace, naturally.  Arranging LP covers in a mosaic of MY TASTE IN MUSIC.  Plus ca change !

Jimmy Lance, Andy Baybutt, Paul Gunter, spring 2005

So the world turned, 2005 came and we drank on. We smoked on.   Butterfly McQueen rehearsed diligently.  The gang had a semi-legendary trip to Dublin to see Catherine Walker onstage.  (She was nominated later, and won.)  Drugs were taken I suspect.  Jenny and I went to Japan on a trip, to see the opening night of “New Year’s Day” a play based on my film of the same name which had opened there in 2001 and been a big hit.  They’re into teenage suicide, the Japanese.  We looked round Tokyo with wide eyes then took the bullet train past Mt Fuji down to Kyoto, spending a few nights in a real ryokan or traditional Japanese inn, complete with tatami mats and sliding doors and onsen, hot mineral baths.   Kyoto has over 40 temples and we visited a handful of them including the Silver Pavilion Ginkaku-ji.  Lucky us.  We absolutely loved it there and vowed to return and spend more time in Japan.  In fact we’ve been back once since then for another production of the same play in Tokyo.

Tokyo wedding spring 2005

More parties – Jo Cresswell’s sister Lesline moved down and held a house-warming in Hanover.  Laurie Booth and Jeanne Spaziani hosted another fabulous bash at their house in Queen’s Park and on the wee-small-hours walk home Jenny and I saw a badger on our street, snuffling around in each garden quite methodically, claws click clacking on the pavement.

Yup

2005 also marks the first time my other band, The Brighton Beach Boys, played Pet Sounds and Sgt Pepper together, as a kind of prize-fight, one Sunday afternoon in the Robin Hood pub after the landlord Neil Hayward had suggested the idea and called our bluff.  We struggled through both albums in a pleasantly ramshackle kind of way.   Since then we’ve played the 2 LPs back-to-back every year, but I think this was the year that we played Pet Sounds for the 2nd time – and my brother Andrew came to see us at the Komedia in Gardner St in May.

As for work (thought you’d never ask), deep breath :  I was asked to Star Wars Celebration 3 in Indianapolis for a small fee, and I swallowed my pride and went, meeting some actors from the film I hadn’t been in (SW2), in particular two Mauri actors from the stunning NZ film Once Were Warriors, Rena Owen and Temuara Morrison.

Indianapolis : us with Rena Owen and others I simply cannot remember

I was the baddie in Rich Hall’s Cattle Drive, a western set in Wales.  I also snaffled a part in Julia Davis‘ marvellous warped sitcom Nighty Night as the pervy sex therapist hippie guru Jacques, alongside Ruth Jones, Angus Deayton, Rebecca Front, Mark Gatiss and Miranda Hart.  Wonder what they’re all doing now ?   I also took three episodes of Coronation Street as Status Quo’s roadie for their 45th anniversary.  Corrie’s, not Quo !  (See My Pop Life #172 ).  Looking back, it was an amazing time in my life, but at the time I took it all in my stride, and yet – of course – I thought that I should have been doing better.  This is the human condition.   I have since learned – I hope – to be grateful for my life, grateful for each day and any serendipitous moments, offers, meetings, jobs, and simply for being alive at this point in time.  Looking back at these events as I have been for over 190 blog posts, together making up a kind of musical autobiography, has certainly helped in that respect.

Georgie Glen, Ruth Jones, Ralph Brown, Julia Davis, Miranda Hart, 2005

Big album of the spring for me was Ben Folds’ Songs For Silverman, a fantastic collection.  Later in the year Richard Hawley would release Coles Corner which placed him firmly on the UK music map (it was his 4th LP) and which always makes me think of Lee Ross’s songs whenever I hear it.  I don’t have any Butterfly McQueen songs on mp3, vinyl or tape, so if you want to know what we sounded like, I think Lee will forgive me 75% if I suggest that you put on Richard Hawley and have a listen.

Finally August 9th rolled around.  Paul’s 40th birthday.  Jenny had an operation booked for that date in Guildford, so Paul held his birthday party the night before on August 8th.  We were in Manchester Street, downstairs at The Komedia, later renamed The Latest Bar : it has had a few names over the years.  Everyone was there it felt like – all of Stomp: Luke, Jo, Loretta, Steve, Fraser et al.  Bohemia : Butterfly McQueen, Tim, two Jos, Jason’s wife Natasha, Andy Baybutt, Jimmy and Daisy (were they still together?), Lucy, Robbie (umm, were they on tour though?).  Evidence that Paul had hooked up with Katrina by then. It was also Maggie Flynn’s birthday and her husband actor Rob Pugh and daughter Scarlett were there.  She met our nephew and housemate Thomas at the party.   They eventually decided in the ensuing months that they liked each other quite a lot, and before long they were both living with us.  They now have two daughters, and live in that same house.  Solo dios sabe mi destino.  Even if the gig had been pants, this was a result !

Butterfly McQueen Aug 8th 05 : Jason, Paul, Lee, Simon, Will, Ralph

But the gig was also an unalloyed triumph.  We were so tight, so rehearsed, so ready.  We delivered the songs as they deserved, with sweetness and harmony and soul. Beautiful Jo Thornhill said it was the best debut gig by a band she had ever seen. We were so proud.   Lee was beaming.  Jo McInnes – little Jo – was very proud of us.

Little Jo, Paul and the back of Katrina 08.08.04

In retrospect it was peak Butterfly McQueen.  We did more gigs after that, notably at the Concorde supporting Mark Eitzel and American Music Club, with Robbie doing our sound.  But Lee was getting antsy – first with Paul, then with me, perhaps with himself.  At some point in 2006 it stopped being something to look forward to and was something to bear, then something to try and enjoy despite the vibe, then something to move away from.  It’s how bands tend to work in my limited experience.  Often.  Lee went on to work on Planet of the Apes movies with his mate Andy Serkis, and good plays in London and various TV shows.  Joanne has directed stuff at the Royal Court and together they created a show called Marine Parade with the Brighton theatre company they ran with Jimmy Lance.  Then their beautiful daughter Kiki arrived and they moved away from Brighton to raise her in the countryside in Forest Row, Ashdown Forest, one of my favourite places.   I haven’t even been out there to see them, but when there’s an event or a marriage (Jimmy and Katie 2016) or a birthday (my 60th 2017) we see each other again and catch up.   I rambled and roved around, wandered and wondered and talked about myself quite a bit but this was Jo McInnes’ blog.  Hers and Lee’s. Inseparable as ever.

Insurmountable Loving.  Love you Lee.  Love you Jo.  Hang on in there baby X

 

My Pop Life #191 : Águas de Marco – Elis Regina + Tom Jobim

Águas de Marco – Elis Regina & Tom Jobim

É o pau, é a pedra, é o fim do caminho
É um resto de toco, é um pouco sozinho
É um caco de vidro, é a vida, é o sol
É a noite, é a morte, é um laço, é o anzol
É peroba no campo, é o nó da madeira
Caingá candeia, é o matita-pereira
É madeira de vento, tombo da ribanceira
É o mistério profundo, é o queira ou não queira
É o vento ventando, é o fim da ladeira,
É a viga, é o vão, festa da cumeeira
É a chuva chovendo, é a conversa ribeira
Das águas de março, é o fim da canseira


*

A stick, a stone
It’s the end of the road
It’s the rest of a stump
It’s a little alone
It’s a sliver of glass
It is life, it’s the sun
It is night, it is death
It’s a trap, it’s a gun
The oak when it blooms
A fox in the brush
The knot in the wood
The song of a thrush
The wood of the wind
A cliff, a fall
A scratch, a lump
It is nothing at all
It’s the wind blowing free
It’s the end of the slope
It’s a beam it’s a void
It’s a hunch, it’s a hope
And the river bank talks
Of the waters of March
It’s the end of the strain
The joy in your heart

*

The Portugese is considerably more poetic of course, in the original, but Tom Jobim who wrote both the music and the lyrics, was determined to translate it into English and did so back in 1972 deliberately not using English words with Latin roots.  Joao Gilberto was the first musician to cover it in 1973 and he played it on guitar with a very simple accompaniment.  The Waters of March come at the end of the Brazilian summer and presage autumn and winter, a constant rain that lasts for days, and this stream of consciousness song full of images both linked and random accompanies the falling rain and has a hypnotic meandering mesmeric quality, especially I would argue in this version from 1974 where the great Brazilian singer Elis Regina is joined by songwriter Tom Jobim to sing possibly the finest song to ever come from that country.

It was Jenny who latched onto the song.  By the time she moved in with me into Archway Road in 1990 the record was a constant on the player, it’s smooth lounge quality and soft bossa nova melodies haunting any room that heard it.  It was on a Verve LP called Jazz Masters 13 : Antonio Carlos Jobim which I bought in the 1980s on vinyl and played to death.  It was all in Portugese and contained well-known songs like So Danço Samba, Corcovado (Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars) and Slightly Out Of Tune (or Desafinado).   A wonderful overview of his writing life, it was the sister record to my Jazz Samba LP by Stan Getz which I have been singularly obsessed with since my early 20s, my entry point into Brazil alongside the 1970 football team of course.

Antonio Carlos Jobim grew up in the middle-class Ipanema neighbourhood of Rio de Janeiro when his parents separated.  His musical influences were Ary Barroso, Pixinguinha, Maurice Ravel and Debussy and alongside guitarist Joao Gilberto he created a new musical genre in the late 1950s in Rio : bossa nova.

Vinicius de Moraes & Tom Jobim – 1960s

Lyrics were often provided by poet Vinicius De Moraes – but it is the melodic genius of Jobim which stands out – often using the major 7th, like Bacharach, to convey suspended feelings (the major 7th is a semitone below the “correct” note) and the yearning delicate beauty of his songs broke through into America and Europe when saxophonist Stan Getz covered some of Jobim’s finest compositions on 2 LPs with guitarists Charlie Byrd (who’d discovered bossa nova travelling in 1961) and Luis Bonfa.  See My Pop Life #68 :  Jazz Samba in 1962 and Jazz Samba Encore in 1964.   The song Desafinado was on Jazz Samba (incredibly recorded in All Souls Unitarian Church Washington D.C. where Marvin Gaye recorded and where my play Sanctuary D.C. was performed in 1988!), which won Getz a grammy.   This led to a collaboration between Getz and Joao Gilberto, (whose delicate mastery of the acoustic guitar had brought Jobim’s song Chega de Saudade to life in 1959 and kick-started bossa nova) and Gilberto’s wife Astrud Gilberto who would sing an English-language version of The Girl From Ipanema on the LP Getz/Gilberto that opened up the planet to the songs of Tom Jobim.   Sex, of course, the international language.

The foot, the ground
The flesh and the bone
The beat of the road
A slingshot stone
A fish, a flash
A silvery glow
A fight, a bet
The range of a bow
The bed of the well
The end of the line
The dismay in the face
It’s a loss, it’s a find
A spear, a spike
A point, a nail
A drip, a drop
The end of the tale
A truckload of bricks
In the soft morning light
The shot of a gun
In the dead of the night
A mile, a must
A thrust, a bump
It’s a girl, it’s a rhyme
It’s a cold, it’s the mumps
The plan of the house
The body in bed
And the car that got stuck
It’s the mud, it’s the mud
A float, a drift
A flight, a wing
A hawk, a quail
The promise of spring
And the river bank talks
Of the waters of March
It’s the promise of life
It’s the joy in your heart

I would highly recommend all of the records mentioned above : Chega de Saudade is on an LP of the same name and is under 2 minutes long.  This is how legends are born.  Jazz Samba and Jazz Samba Encore are on Verve, while Getz/Gilberto which came out in 1964 was the first jazz LP to win album of the year and it started the bossa nova craze in America which even had Frank Sinatra singing with Jobim in 1967.

Joao Gilberto, Luis Bonfa, Tom Jobim, Vinicius De Moraes, Sergio Mendes and Astrud Gilberto all continued to make exceptional music, either more or less under the umbrella of bossa nova (literally “new trend” a cross between samba and jazz), the music of Rio de Janiero – or as the music-shop owner in Ipanema corrected me in 2014 – we were there for the Wordl Cup naturally – the music of bourgeouis Rio, collegiate  Rio.  The favela folk listen to Michael Jackson and Bruno Mars.   Or maybe they listen to Sergio Mendes and Elis Regina too.

Elis was raised in Porto Alegre and moved to Rio to further her musical career.  In 1965 she became the biggest selling Brazilian artist since Carmen Miranda with a Vinicius De Moraes/Edu Lobo song Arrastão, which was a sensation, shooting her to stardom and creating a new genre of music MPB (Música popular brasileira or Brazilian Popular Music).

The next ten years in Brazil produced a tremendously rich flowering of music, some popular like Jorge Ben or Chico Buarque, some more artistic and international such as the Tropicalia movement : Gilberto Gil, Os Mutantes, Tom Ze, Caetano Veloso.  Samba was part of all of these blooms, a desire to plant roots and produce a truly Brazilian music.  Meanwhile Jobim was still writing amazing songs – and none more amazing than this one.

A snake, a stick
It is John, it is Joe
It’s a thorn in your hand
And a cut in your toe
A point, a grain
A bee, a bite
A blink, a buzzard,
A sudden stroke of night
A pass in the mountains
A horse and a mule
In the distance the shelves
Rode three shadows of blue
And the river talks
Of the waters of March
It’s the promise of life
In your heart, in your heart

1974

It was Jenny whose ears first pricked.   She declared it her favourite on the LP.  She loves it.  It became a favourite of ours over the years, on mixtapes and gift-CDs.  Often we would dance across the kitchen floor to its seductive whisperings.  We became so obsessed by it since moving to New York that I started to work out the chords on the piano, but it’s the rhythm which is so ensnaring, or rather a combination of the melody and the rhythm.  For a few weeks the song became ubiquitous – in early 2017 we couldn’t escape from it.  My giant 60th birthday party was looming in June and we were wondering : I’d asked a dozen loving friends to sing me a song on the auspicious day, backed by a mini-orchestra (The Psychedelic Love Orchestra, spawned from the Brighton Beach Boys).  It felt weird to not sing a song – maybe we should do a duet ??

Tom Jobim & Elis Regina

There were only two contenders really – this song, Águas de Marco or You’re All I Need To Get By by Marvin Gaye and Tammy Terrell.  Showstoppers.  We tried them a few times.  We got shy.  We decided against it.  Jenny was then going to sing me Alice Smith’s cover of Fool For You which is exquisite.  It nearly happened.  I was going to sing We Will, It Must Be Love,  How Can I Be Sure, What A Waste.  Decided not to.  It’s pretty nerve-wracking singing a song live.  You have to give yourself permission to do it mainly.  That little voice in your head saying “Can you do it, really?” is not very useful at all.   “Should I do it?” is even worse.  You have to be kind of indestructible and surrender to the song, deliver it, own it.  It’s a strange combination, but doubt really is not a part of it.  It has taken me ten years or more to really be able to sing Within You Without You on our Sgt Pepper dates (see My Pop Life #154) with full authority.   Like many creative tasks, repetition is the key.  Like listening to Jobim every day for a week will enfold you in his world and you won’t want to leave.   It’s all very well me writing a whole load of guff about how I fell in love with Brasilien music (portugese spelling) but in the end I just listened to the songs.  Didn’t read about them.  Just listened and found more, and more, and more.

Elis Regina

É um estrepe, é um prego, é uma conta, é um conto
É um pingo pingando, é uma conta, é um ponto
É um peixe, é um gesto, é uma prata brilhando
É a luz da manhã, é o tijolo chegando
É a lenha, é o dia, é o fim da picada
É a garrafa de cana, o estilhaço na estrada
É o projeto da casa, é o corpo na cama
É o carro enguiçado, é a lama, é a lama
É um passo, é uma ponte, é um sapo, é uma rã
É um resto de mato, na luz da manhã
São as águas de março fechando o verão
É a promessa de vida no teu coração

This song in particular I find extraordinary.  One of the great duets – see Ray Charles and Betty Carter singing Baby It’s Cold Outside for the pinnacle  – every line in the Portugese version starts with “It’s” (or É) – and each image leads you away from the rain, and back to it, like a child staring at raindrops running down a window-pane, daydreaming of playing outside, stopping, starting, blurring your eyes as you focus and glaze, wondering about long ago and tomorrow and feeling safe and gentle and grateful.

 

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