My Pop Life #127 : He Who Would Valiant Be

To Be A Pilgrim

he who would valiant be ‘gainst all disaster

let hm in constancy follow the master

there’s no discouragement can make him once relent

his first avowed intent to be a pilgrim…

At some point in 1966 my mother was still in Hellingly Hospital near Herstmonceux in East Sussex, receiving ECG and taking various medications, mainly Largactyl.   She’d had a Nervous Breakdown.  She would be there for 9 months in all.  I wrote about this period in My Pop Life #55.  My dad was struggling to cope with three young sons and a full-time teaching job in Brighton and initially he’d been helped by our Nan, Ruby Laming who’d travelled up from Portsmouth and lived with us in the village.   Apart from missing Mum terribly our lives hadn’t changed all that much – we still walked up the road to the little village school, played football, fought in the playground, saved up for a packet of crisps and hid in the bales of the barn opposite our house.

Mum came home eventually 9 months later, but Dad moved out under a cloud pretty soon after that after being caught with the babysitter.  So then it was Mum and three boys.   These years blur and blend, but perhaps it was 1968 when she must have returned to hospital again.

And suddenly we were shipped out to Brighton – or at least Paul and I were.  Andrew was only 3 or 4 years old at this point and would have been transferred to Mum’s sister Valerie in Portsmouth.   Separated not for the first or the last time.   But at least we weren’t in care.   Being abused somewhere.   Lucky us.   I think Paul and I were 10 and 8 years old respectively.  It may be 9 and 7.  Someone may help me pin the year down.  It won’t make that much difference.

We were taken to a house in Lauriston Road where a colleague of my Dad’s lived with his family.  Phil was a teacher at Westlain Grammar too.  His wife Moyra also worked but I cannot remember her job.  They had two children called Ceri and Eleri – the daughter Eleri was one year older than Ceri.

Lauriston Road is opposite the top end of Preston Park in Brighton.    Us country boys from a small village with one shop were suitably gobsmacked by this development.  Just down Preston Road was the Rookery Rock Garden, right opposite the park and we explored that with delight.  Twisty paths, ponds with fish, rocks and overhanging trees, all built on a hillside between the main road north – the A23 and the railway line.  It has a slightly Japanese feel in design, and was built in 1935 using tons of imported Cheddar rock and stone.   It is still a delightful place to visit.  It was my first taste of Brighton.

We were all taken to their primary school the next morning, but Paul refused to go, hanging onto the baluster of the staircase and screaming his head off.  Moyra got quite upset with him – I imagine she was being made late for work, and there was nowhere else for us to be at that age.  Eventually his hands were prised free from the staircase and we were bundled into a Morris Traveller and taken to school.

Christian reads his Book :  William Blake

The school was terrifying of course.  We’d been used to a tiny classroom with a dozen kids, three or four of them my own age.   Now we were lined up at desks with 25-30 strange faces and a large female teacher whose name I have erased.  She read to us every day from a large book about a man called Christian and his journey across a strange forbidding landscape – the Hill Of Difficulty, the Valley of Humiliation and carrying this weight everywhere he went – a book.  When Christian was captured by The Giant Despair and imprisoned in his Doubting Castle I started freaking out.

The psycho-geography of Pilgrim’s Progress

Then I caught chicken pox.  Then Paul caught chicken pox.  Then Ceri caught chicken pox.  Then Eleri caught chicken pox.  That was the end of school !!  We were bedridden for at least a week, maybe more.  Phil would read us bedtime stories at night bless him.  In loco parentis.  We never really made friends with those kids and I don’t think we ever saw them again.  It was like an unearthly interlude with illness – and probably felt like chaos to my parents.

John Bunyan (detail) – painting by Thomas Sadler

Later I realised that the book that was being read aloud to us was John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, a christian allegory the first part of which was published in England in 1677 while Bunyan was imprisoned for preaching without a licence.   Perhaps it was an abridged version, or a child’s version we were listening to.  In any event the looming Celestial City and the Valley Of The Shadow Of Death both represented the same thing to me – horror.  I can’t ever remember enjoying Christian stories, whether Old Testament, New Testament or books like Pilgrim’s Progress.  They always felt slightly threatening.  Perhaps it was the context, or the character of the teller.

6th-former, Lewes Grammar 1964 by the Chapel

Later when I was at Grammar School in Lewes we sang in the School Chapel, the whole school assembled to stand in pews and hold hymnbooks and sing together.   Me in shorts, uniform, striped dark blue and light blue tie and cap.   And there was that word again, in a tune that filled my heart :  To Be A Pilgrim.  I never heard any version of this on record or anywhere else, my entire memory of it is as a hymn sung in a church.  Little did I know that the words of the hymn were taken from Bunyan’s book, slightly modified in 1906 by Percy Dearnal, and set to music in the same year by my namesake Ralph Vaughan Williams.   Later on Vaughan Williams would write an opera called Pilgrim’s Progress which premiered in 1951.

English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams

Young Ralph – he was 34 at the time – took the music from a Sussex folk song called Monk’s Gate, named after a village near Horsham, the tune being collected by a Mrs Harriet Verrall of that parish who was also responsible for the Sussex Carol.  The resulting tune and words are forever stirring and pleasing to mine ear, and do not remind me of the shadowy days listening to Pilgrim’s Progress in some strange forbidding grey school in Brighton.  I can pick up and discard these associations in my own time – luckily – for the hated Thatcher’s funeral also featured this very hymn.   In fact I’m quite fond of the word Pilgrim.  I like to set myself random tasks, usually psycho-geographical in nature, oft times muso-geographical, and then become a pilgrim for the length of a day, a week, a year.  An example is to be found at My Pop Life 16 when Jenny and I visited the Metropolitan Museum in 2014 seeking the paintings from Rufus Wainwright‘s The Art Teacher, or at My Pop Life #97 when I sought out the locations in Berlin that David Bowie references in “Where Are We Now?“.  In both instances I was a pilgrim.  There is a staggeringly good Van Der Graaf Generator song called Pilgrims which I am inordinately fond of.

And there is a Wishbone Ash LP called Pilgrimage which captured our teenage imagination at one point with its twin lead guitar attack and which I have not revisited this long century since.   But it means so much more than this.  Remember the Canterbury Tales?

The Hajj to Mecca ? The Pilgrimage Of Grace ?

Benares ?  

These mass movements of the devoted are peaceful in nature, the very opposite of a crusade.  And yet and yet.  I have to reject the religious way, the idea of such certainly being handed to me in a book, from a man, located in a place, a system of beliefs laid out for me.  The centre of the universe is surely everywhere as Sitting Bull once observed.

Pilgrims are focussed.  Single minded.  Valiant – possibly.   They seek, they search, they have a reason to go on.  Following a master ?  Don’t know about that.  It would certainly make it easier though wouldn’t it ?  Make it easier to be a pilgrim.

Maddy Prior who used to be in Steeleye Span :

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My Pop Life #126 : Blue Monday – Fats Domino

Saturday mornin’, oh saturday mornin’ all my tiredness has gone away

got my money and my honey & we’re out on the stand to play…

 When Jenny and I finally got married on July 25th 1992 we did it in style.  We did it in the way we wanted to.  We’d postponed the original date (see My Pop Life #20) and waited a year or two then walked up the aisle eventually in 1992.   Our perfect wedding consisted of : a gold wedding dress for Jenny;  a bootlace tie for me;  a choir composed of our friends to sing things to us (see My Pop Life 56);  a wedding reception where someone played Chopin and where we both made speeches;   a party in the evening where we could invite EVERYONE;  a wedding band which played at the party that we could both play in.  For starters.  We planned every detail.  Some people don’t do this obviously – some people run away to Las Vegas, or in Dee’s case, Grenada.   Yes, Jenny’s oldest sister Dee flew to New York and thence to Grenada to marry Mick Stock (Jamie and Jordan’s dad) and made Jenny’s mum Esther furious for denying her a wedding.  We included Esther in our wedding – it was about 18 months of serious hard-nosed negotiation, mainly by Jenny.   OK, all by Jenny.

              

         Stephen Warbeck                                     Joe Korner

      

                       Simon Korner                                     Andrew Ranken

The wedding band was made of people I’d gone to school with and played in bands with, almost exclusively.  Andrew Taylor “Tat”on guitar, from school band Rough Justice (see My Pop Life #80);   Joe Korner on keyboards/piano from art-rock band Birds Of Tin (haven’t written about them yet);    Patrick Freyne on drums also from an early incarnation of Birds Of Tin;   Simon Korner my oldest and best friend on bass guitar – rather remarkably I’d never played in a band with him before so we were making up for lost time;   Andrew Ranken on vocals who had gone out with Simon’s sister Deborah Korner for years through school and beyond before Deborah had a baby boy and then tragically and awfully died shortly afterwards of an aneurysm in 1991.   The shadow of that death was still cast over our wedding quite naturally.  Andrew and Patrick had both been excellent drummers at Priory School in Lewes, (as had Pete Thomas) and they had performed a memorable drum battle on the school playing fields one summers day in 1974.   Pete Thomas went on to join The Attractions in 1977 and has been playing with Elvis Costello ever since off and on, while Andrew  joined The Pogues in 1983 and had recorded five LPs with them by the time of our wedding.  I’d seen them live many times with Simon and Joe.  He brought multi-instrumentalist and good bloke Jem Finer, co-writer of Fairytale in New York with him into the wedding band on saxophone alongside myself.

James Fearnley,  Jem Finer,  Andrew Ranken,  Spider Stacey,            Shane McGowan, Cait O’Riordan early 1980s

Stephen Wood, close friend of Andrew who also went to Priory played accordion and went on to change his name to ‘Oscar-winning composer ‘ Stephen Warbeck (for Shakespeare In Love).   On the night of the wedding a third sax player called Chris turned up and played tenor.  He was good, but he needed to be because he hadn’t been to any rehearsals.   Jenny’s sister Lucy Jules was on backing vocals with Jenny herself alongside our good friend Maureen Hibbert.  They looked like The Supremes or The Emotions ie : great.  And they could all sing.  It was a good wee band.

The Mysterious Wheels

Andrew, Simon and Joe are still playing together in that band, now called Andrew Ranken & The Mysterious Wheels.  Catch them live in London!

We rehearsed in IGA Studios as I recall, close to Mount Pleasant Post Office in WC2.   The early discussions about a setlist were interesting since they mainly consisted of Andrew casting a veto over any song which he didn’t fancy singing – which was most of the songs that we wanted at our wedding.  Oh well.  The only exception was Try A Little Tenderness which we had lined up for Lucy, who has an exceptional voice, but that’s for another post.  In the end our setlist was based on Andrew’s tried and tested setlist emanating from the great city of New Orleans and primarily songs written or performed by the great Smiley Lewis:  One Night, I Hear You Knocking, Dirty People and Blue Monday.   I knew Smiley Lewis – I’d bought the above-pictured CD in the mid-80s, it is Fantastic.  One of the inventors of rock and roll or R’n’B as we knew it.  (They’re very close.)  All songs made famous by other players – One Night by Elvis, I Hear You Knocking by Fats Domino and Dave Edmunds, Dirty People by Omar & The Howlers.  Who?   I also owned Fats Domino’s greatest hits from way back in the late 70s and considered him to be a genius.   Fats covered all these songs.  We also threw in Robert Parker’s Barefootin’, Chuck Berry’s Nadine, Leadbelly’s Goodnight Irene, Dr John’s version of Junco Partner,  and Lloyd Price’s Stagger Lee and Lawdy Miss Clawdy (I think!).

Andrew had played in Lewes band The Grobs when Simon and I, Tat and Joe and Patrick and Stephen were at Priory School.  He’d always been cooler than us.  One year older is a long time when you’re sixteen.  I’m not sure when he settled on New Orleans as the source of his live act, but it is definitely a sign of muso grooviness, like a faintly secret musical society.  Everyone knows Motown, most people know Philly, some know Stax but who knows Imperial Records or Specialty  Records from Louisiana ?  The sound of New Orleans is different from everywhere else in the States in that most songs will be piano-based rather than guitar.  This rolling style exemplified by Ray Charles, Fats Domino, Allen Toussaint and Dr John gives all these records their own unique flavour, my own personal favourite style of boogie-woogie rhythm and blues.  Andrew Ranken, in short, was right.  Perhaps The Pogues, a punk-flavoured London Irish band led by the inimitable Shane McGowan had formed an attachment to the city when they’d passed through.  Original member Spider Stacey now lives there with his wife, having worked on a couple of episodes of that great TV showcase for the city Treme.

Fats Domino 1956

Almost all of these chosen wedding night songs were born in New Orleans.  Days after the wedding night, in a completely star-crossed, fortuitous and magical co-incidence,  Jenny and I were drinking our way around the Crescent City on our first honeymoon, courtesy of MGM Studios who had employed me to act in their film Undercover Blues alongside Fiona Shaw, Dennis Quaid, Kathleen Turner and Stanley Tucci.   For another post !

New Orleans is where jazz was born in those days before recording was invented.  Instruments abandoned by the marching bands of the Confederate army after the Civil War ended in 1965 were currency in New Orleans where whites and blacks mixed more than they did elsewhere in the segregated south, giving rise to a creole property-owning middle class in the late 1890s when the riverboats would steam up the Mississippi and gamblers, hucksters and nascent capitalists rubbed shoulders in the gin-joints and speakeasys of The French Quarter where Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton could be found forging the music of the 20th century.   It became known as Music City long before Nashville stole that crown.  There are blues joints and hops all over town, some of them such as Tipitina’s legendary.   By the mid-forties the blues had acquired a bit of bounce and this is where Smiley Lewis comes in.   A rural Louisianan who hopped a tramcar to N’Awlins after his mother died, he hooked up with bandleader and key figure Dave Bartholomew, and cut Dave’s song Blue Monday.

It’s a Monday to Friday song,  some of my favourite songs have this structure : Friday On My Mind by The Easybeats, Diary of Horace Wimp by ELO.  Solomon Grundy springs to mind :

Solomon Grundy,

Born on a Monday,

Christened on Tuesday,

Married on Wednesday,

Took ill on Thursday,

Worse on Friday,

Died on Saturday,

Buried on Sunday,

That was the end, of Solomon Grundy

A nursery rhyme ‘collected’ in the 1840s.   Bartholomew’s song was re-recorded by Fats Domino two years later and became a huge hit in 1956, the year that I was conceived.  Smiley Lewis’ biggest hit was I Hear You Knocking but again Fats’ version of that also outsold it by hundreds of thousands.  Smiley Lewis didn’t have no luck.

Our version of Blue Monday featured a crappish saxophone solo by me and a wonderful chorus of the girls singing “Saturday morning oooh Saturday morning…” as they swayed in the breeze at the microphone.  I remember watching our friends Conrad and Gaynor dancing, and others too.  Jenny’s primary memory of the gig is Stephen Wood’s leather sandal beating time into a puddle of beer as he squeezed that accordion.

The wedding party itself was at The Diorama near Regent’s Park, and was brilliantly stage-managed by blessed Neil Cooper may his soul rest in peace.  We had an open parachute suspended from the ceiling above the dance floor.  Flowers everywhere.  The band went on at around ten-thirty I think.  It was nerve-wracking, but no more so than standing in a church in front of everyone and saying your vows.  I tried to enjoy it, and some of the time I did.  I’m really really glad we did it.  I remember standing round in the Diorama earlier in the evening in my brand new blue suit from Paul Smith gnashing my teeth at the non-arrival of Jenny’s brother Jon who was doing the DJ-ing at the party (he never did show up) and playing Songs In The Key Of Life as people arrived and overhearing two people standing in front of me – the light was low and there were hundreds of people there – discussing the event… “I heard The Pogues are playing later…”  “No…!

The Pogues

Well two of them were.  My main confession concerns the song itself.  I always thought that the Sunday section was “Sunday morning my head is bare, but it’s worth it for the times that I’ve had” but apparently that’s a mis-hearing.  I’m imagining Fats Domino or Smiley Lewis in church on Sunday morning with bare head.  But apparently all the lyric sites quote “Sunday morning my head is bad…”  Make up your own mind dear reader.

Fats Domino himself is simply a legend.  One of the primary forces behind the birth of rock’n’roll he is remarkably still alive, as are Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry and Little Richard from that era.  Three of the group are pianists.  Fats still lives in the 9th Ward in New Orleans and he went missing after deadly Hurricane Katrina in 2005, as did many people including Allen Toussaint.  But he surfaced a few days later.  One of my favourite Fats Domino stories involves boogie-woogie ivory basher Jools Holland who was making a documentary and was visiting his house.  “Good morning“said Jools in his scrawny Lewisham gobshite accent, “We’re here from the BBC making a documentary about pianists and we’re very pleased to include your good self“.  Fats blinked and stared.  “What’d he say?” Fats eventually asked.  Jools repeated his sentence probably slightly slower to no effect.  They all stood there looking at each other.  Eventually Jools sat down at the grand piano and played the intro to Blue Monday.  Fats broke out in a big grin and shook his hand : “I don’t understand a word you’re saying, but if you can play that tune, you can stay

Blue Monday was my favourite of the wedding band songs I think.  It’s a great great song.  Still in the Ralph & Jenny playlist.  Enjoy.

My Pop Life #125 : Chickery Chick – Sammy Kaye

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Chickery Chick   –   Sammy Kaye Orchestra

“Chickery chick, cha-la, cha-la
Check-a-la romey in a banonika
Bollika, wollika, can’t you see
Chickery chick is me? “

My mother, Heather Ruby Laming, was born in June 1935 in Portsmouth to mother Ruby née Price and father Horace Laming.  Ruby had come down to Pompey from Abergavenny in her teens and worked ‘in service’ until the birth of my mum.  Below stairs in a rich families’ house in other words.  Something happened there that she almost told me once, then changed her mind.  I’d travelled down to Copnor in North Portsmouth in the 1980s to talk to her about her life.  My Nan would have been late 80s by then, still painting occasionally-interesting abstracts, still lives and strange scenes from road accidents or desolate sea shores.  The house was full of her paintings.  She appeared to be fond of me, regarding me with a tolerant, knowing chuckle as if I couldn’t put one over on her.  She came out with some odd things regarding my Mum – “Heather has always been difficult – she wouldn’t even take the nipple as a baby”.  

That’s a bit dark, I thought.

Her dad Fred Price was a lovely old geezer who used to write funny letters to my Mum when she married my Dad and moved away from Portsmouth, first to Cambridge, then to Sussex. “Winter – drawers – on” he wrote as we entered December.  Clever old stick.  Ruby would have us believe that she was the eternally long-suffering wife of a dreadful husband – Horace, and I wrote about the strange atmosphere pervading his funeral in the late 1960s in My Pop Life #49.

 Almost all of the stories I heard about my Nan were bad, and my own experience talking to her backed them up.  She favoured Mum’s sister, Aunty Valerie, deeply favoured her.   She used to drink heavily when Heather was growing up and going out with my Dad, and once or twice he intervened to stop Horace and Ruby coming to blows.  Or to stop Ruby beating on my Mum.  In any event it didn’t sound like the most closely-knit family.   I remember one Christmas round there when I was about five – where we had to behave.  Keep quiet.  Ssshhh.

Of course when Mum had her first nervous breakdown (that I was aware of) in 1965 (see My Pop Life #54), Nan came up from Portsmouth to look after us while Dad went to work teaching.  She must have lived with us in 2 Manor Cottages, Selmeston, for nine months, for that was how long Mum stayed in the hospital in the end.  The Mental Hospital it was called.  I can’t remember much about that period, having successfully wiped it out of my memory and grown up without its haunting disabilities at the front of my brain.  Buried so deep that it rots my soul from within.  But Nan must have been alternately strict and loving with us, me, Paul and Andrew.  Thinking about it, this was when Andrew was disappeared to Portsmouth to stay with Aunty Valerie and Uncle Keith, so Nan was only looking after Paul and I.  We shared a bedroom.  We talked before we fell asleep, after the light was turned off.  It kept us sane.  Kind of.

Later on, when Nan sold the house in Copnor and moved into a nursing home in Southsea, Mum travelled down to see the house for one last time.  the same one we’d gather in for Horace’s funeral, for Christmas, for strange visits which I dreaded.  When Mum got there the house was empty.  Literally.  No art.  No china.  No furniture.  “Oh“, she said to Ruby, “I thought I could have taken one thing to remember this house by, a saucer or a vase or something“.   Ruby then answered with one of her classics :  “I gave everything to the woman over the road.  She’s been like a daughter to me.” 

When my Mum told me this story I was horrified.  I said “You can’t go on taking this shit, it’s abusive, designed to hurt you.”  Nan was still alive, we were still visiting her in the nursing home.  She was in her 90s now.  “No,” said Mum, “I don’t want to upset her.”  I had another clue to the cause of the mental illnesses mum had been plagued with for what seemed like the bulk of her life.  Not to mention my own bipolarity.

Bollika Wollika.

My friend Richard went to see her one day with Paul and we had an interesting chat about it later.  He thought there was a possibility that she was a lesbian who’d never owned it, let alone come out.  Pretty charitable I thought.

*

This may well be the happiest memory I can retrieve of my Nan…and perhaps have been the first pop song I ever heard, although it would have been from my Mother’s lips.  She remembers it from World War Two when Ruby sang it to her, enjoying the nonsense words.  I remember Mum singing this all through the 1960s.  She actually sang “Wollika Wollika can’t you see” rather than the actual words “Bollika Wollika” which clearly don’t have the same connotation in America and which were carefully screened from our young English ears.   I never did know what she was talking about until one day looking through some old sheet music in a shop, I found this.

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So it had been a Number #1 hit song in the U.S. and in the charts for over 4 months, played by the Sammy Kaye Orchestra.  The odd words were written by Sylvia Dee, and the music by her regular songwriting partner Sidney Lippman.  Sammy Kaye had over 30 hit songs in the swing era, and six number ones.  “Swing and Sway with Sammy Kaye”offered the tag-line, and young Nancy Norman auditioned aged 16 and 4’11” high and got the job of female vocalist.  Her mother would chaperone her all over the United States to sing Chickery Chick.  The man’s voice is country singer Billy Wiliams.   Many other stars covered the song, including The Andrews Sisters, Frank Sinatra, Gene Krupa & Anita O’Day, and Evelyn Knight and The Jesters, which is my actual favourite.

The word banonika is still in use in our house here in Brooklyn.  It is used to denote a wrapping into which the special needs cat Roxy will position herself, enjoying the cosy created therein.

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Not a banonika

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Not a banonika, strictly speaking

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a carboard box I’d call that

When she is under the duvet or inside some clothing then :  “Are you in your banonika darling?”we will ask in slightly high-pitched voices as if talking to a child.  Which we are really.  A furry child substitute.  Maybe we should sing Chickery Chick to our cat.  I’m sure people have.

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Roxy and I agree that we have no banonika pictures

*

Sammy Kaye, featuring Nancy Norman & Billy Williams :

Evelyn Knight & The Jesters :

My Pop Life #124 : Beyond Belief – Elvis Costello

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Beyond Belief   –   Elvis Costello

…so in this almost-empty gin palace

through a two-way looking-glass, you see your Alice..

you know she has no sins for all your jeaousies

in a sense she still smiles, very sweetly…

I have been writing this musical patchwork quilt of a memoir for over a year now and somehow not mentioned Elvis Costello.  I hold his work in the very highest esteem, and have loyally bought his LPs as they are released, with The Attractions, or other collaborations :  singing country, classical, pop, jazz-stylings, americana or urbana, rock or baroque, rockabilly or punk, crooning or spitting.  His output is fecund, his quality high.  I really like most of it, dislike very little and absolutely love a great deal of his work.  I have seen him live at least thirteen times over the years, in Brighton, London, Santa Barbara and New York.  When I was younger and living in North London, my brother Andrew was at Middlesex College and going out with Debbie whom he’d known since school and who was at least as big an Elvis Costello fan as I – in fact we went to a few gigs together.  Debbie would always appear in the street afterwards, joining me having a fag, clutching a set-list which she’d snaffled for herself or from a kindly roadie.  I wonder if these treasures are stored somewhere?

It is now possible to access one’s live music memories via a website : setlist.org.  They don’t have the hand-scrawled mementos though.  I have quite a few set-lists myself from different eras, in particular the Brian Wilson band era of the early 21st century.  And then sometimes I lose interest in ephemera and just want the musical memories.  Unfortunately this approach has the downfall of being as ambiguous as your own memory.  Will you remember every song that you saw live?  Of course you bloody won’t !

It’s a damn shame, but I have had to face my fading life-story as I write it down, trying to pin wraiths up in a smoky room, nailing down wisps of certainty amidst clouds of doubt.  Others have helped – remembering things that have long gone, gigs, bands I’ve played in, moments, triumphs, disasters.  I try to treat these two imposters both the same of course, but I prefer the triumphs.  Just a little secret.  But in writing this series of blogs the disasters have often been better pieces of writing.  Perhaps each entry should contain healthy selections of both.

Last night I went to see Elvis Costello again, but this time he was in conversation with old friend Roseanne Cash, talking about his newly-published autobiography Unfaithful Music  & Disappearing Ink at BAM in Brooklyn.   His pop life in fact.  I’m half-way through reading the 700 pages as I write and it is a hugely enjoyable journey through his life and work, non-linear also, joining different moments together from different times, using music to trigger images, constantly relating asides about singers, songs, lyrics, musical pick-n-mix reminiscenses about listening to the radio, meeting your idols, playing Top of the Pops or playing a gig to three people and a dog.  His father is prominent, so is Liverpool, and there is a fine sense of musical history running throughout the narrative.  Costello comes across as an uber-fan as much as anything, his encyclopaedic knowledge of other people’s work is infectious and inspiring.  You can hear his appreciation in his songs, almost thirty years of quoting others among his own razor-sharp and original lyrics.

As a lyricist I don’t think Costello can be surpassed.  I would actually place him above Bob Dylan in that respect.  I remember when I was playing in Steven Berkoff’s “West” at the Donmar Warehouse in London over the summer of 1983, we would get rumours of “who was in tonight” trickling back to the dressing room.  One night fellow thespian Bruce Payne came into the brightly-lit mirrored space and slyly remarked that ‘the greatest living poet was in the audience tonight’.   My agent was a strange creature, and I was young and green, because I never did the requisite moving and shaking during this summer to increase my career prospects.  We had all kinds of people watching the show, I guess we were the hot ticket, but for me that was enough.  I’m not a natural hustler.  I just like doing the work.  Hustlers always do better, get further, climb higher.  It’s a natural fact of life.  It doesn’t mean that they’re less talented, although if you have small talent you clearly need to hustle, no, it just means they have that aspect of their personality to the front and centre.

I got to the theatre last-minute as ever.  It had been raining all day, and my friend Johanna and I had been out driving around looking at thrift shops in Brooklyn and Manhattan, we must have walked into at least ten that afternoon, and come home with two inappropriate tables, no teapots and a rather beautiful black piano in my sights.   Johanna reminded me to take my book as she dropped me home.  It was still raining as I stepped into the theater (sp) and bought a ticket.  No book thanks.  Got one.  And into the auditorium.

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BAM is a series of performance spaces including a cinema and a beautiful old opera house. We’d seen Youssou N’Dour there last year with the entire Senegalese population of New York City.  A film was playing as I walked in, a film of Allen Toussaint playing the piano, and Elvis Costello singing “The Greatest Love“.  One day earlier, Toussaint had died in Madrid aged just 77 as he toured Europe with his quintet.  A giant of New Orleans music as a session player, songwriter (Coalmine, Ride Your Pony, Fortune Teller, Southern Nights) and producer (The Meters, Labelle’s Lady Marmalade, Dr John etc) he and Elvis Costello collaborated on an LP together after playing benefit concerts for the Katrina tragedy which almost finished New Orleans.

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The River In Reverse is a wonderful record which was released in 2006 and is a fine chapter in both musician’s output.

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Declan McManus with a photo of his father, Ross McManus

Then Elvis and Roseanne Cash came onstage and spoke for about two hours about the autobiography which Elvis read some passages from, notably about – his own father’s death, seeing Desmond Dekker onstage miming his hit Israelites in 1975 (see My Pop Life #102 ) working with Allen Toussaint, songwriting, showbusiness and family, but mainly and always about music music music about which Elvis is an unending stream of knowledge and enthusiasm.  By way of illustration of his songwriting technique he picked up an acoustic guitar and gave us a rendition of Shipbuilding which he tied into a story about the evacuation of children to Canada during the 2nd World War, a ship leaving Liverpool without his mother on board which was sunk by a German U-boat in the North Atlantic, most of the children dying of hypothermia in the lifeboats after they had been picked up.  Diving for dear life, when we could be diving for pearls.   Then he played a brittle precise acoustic arrangement of one of the most exciting songs in his back catalogue, the song I’ve chosen to select from his vast library of evocations : Beyond Belief.

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Lyrically astounding and musically powerful, it opens the bejewelled and baroque collection of songs he entitled Imperial Bedroom.  The mighty fifth album.

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My previous favourite EC record – 1980’s ‘Get Happy‘ – was a stunning collection of songs all played in the style of Stax house band Booker T & the MGs with a bit of Muscle Shoals and Willie Mitchell thrown in for good measure – it was a mod album, white boys playing post-punk soul shapes with bitter intelligent lyrics.  Imperial Bedroom though was pure pop, horn sectioned, string-arranged, harmony-vocalised pop music and a mightily rich and ornate musical statement as you could find in 1982.  When it came out I was touring England in a Ford Transit van with socialist/feminist theatre group Moving Parts, acting and playing music in self-written pieces ‘with a discussion afterwards‘, changing the world one unemployment drop-in centre at a time.  We were in Scunthorpe, Nottingham, South Yorkshire, Leicester, Newcastle, London, up and down the M1.   We played songs in the style of Adam and The Ants & Madness, The Undertones & Dexys (see My Pop Life #25) while snotty-nosed kids threw polo mints at us because we’d shut down the pool table and assembled a wonky wooden set with crap PA and toy drum kit in the centre.  There was racism, threats and boredom, but there was also much fantastic connection, and every day was actually a thrill.

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top-right: Costello, clockwise : Pete Thomas, Bruce Thomas, Steve Nieve

When this LP Imperial Bedroom came out I think I thought it was one of the best things I’d ever heard.  The band were outstandingly good – Pete Thomas on the drum-kit had gone to my school but been slightly older and cooler than I, and has remained out of reach for the remainder of my life.  Bruce Thomas was on bass guitar with his high-fret jumping lines which elevate each turnaround, and Steve Nieve (a punk affectation but no more than “Elvis Costello“!!) played all the keyboards and arranged the orchestral parts – his contribution doing the most to place the LP in the category of adorned pop masterpieces where it happily sits to this day.

When you hear the songs that they recorded and rejected for the final cut – stuff like the brilliant ‘Heathen Town‘ and the title track – it is no surprise that there isn’t a bad track on the record.   “Just like the canals of Mars and the Great Barrier Reef, I come to you beyond belief”.  

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Elvis Costello & Roseane Cash: 10th November 2015

Roseanne and Elvis did a number together which I didn’t know called April 5th co-written by Kris Kristofferson, then it was over.  My hardback copy of the book was heavy in my black crombie pocket as I established that there would be no book signing in the foyer that night – all the onsale copies were already signed – but mine wasn’t so I sought out the Stage Door.  It was still raining and I went the long way around.  Eventually I was told to wait, and sure enough there was Caroline Clipboard from Artist’s Services asking for my name after I’d let her know that I wasn’t on the list.  I told her it.  Perhaps he’d know who I was.  Other guests were listed and went in.  A handful of hopefuls waited as people came and went.  Some gave up.  Caroline Clipboard kept appearing and she got progressively ruder each time she came down.  “He’s not doing any signings tonight” she said at one point, giving me what she thought was a withering look after I’d been waiting 25 minutes and the security guard had waved me away from the covered vestibule into the rain because I was smoking a cigarette.  Eventually everyone gave up and went into the rain.  I stayed.  Walking home would’ve felt bad at this point.  Miserable book-clutching rain-soaked twat approached in my imagination.  I felt like Billy Stage-Door, the middle-aged loser who wants a quick word with the object of his fandom.  And indeed I decided to inhabit this person.  It was just true.  I would just wait, and sooner or later he’d come out.  It was risky because he might’ve been even ruder than Clipboard Cow, and withered me with a proper withering look, and then I’d have been forced to hate him forever.  Yes, it was risky.  But I knew he wouldn’t.  And I knew he’d come out.

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And he did.  I said “Elvis,” and he turned and looked at me – a man who looked a little like him with the same jaunty hat and black-frame glasses approaching 60, and he said “Yes?“.  I said “They wouldn’t let me upstairs, so I waited down here.” He asked me who I was and I told him my name and said I was an actor.  He said “I’m sorry they didn’t let you upstairs” and I said that they were just doing their job.  I said I just wanted to say Thank You For The Music but I didn’t mention Abba.  He was charming and sweet.  We briefly discussed Withnail, The Crying Game and The Boat That Rocked (“there’s a better film to be made of that story“) then he signed my book, we shook hands and we parted company.  “See you further down the line” he said.  Funny that.  It’s something I say.  Still a hero.  Phew.

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I worked out that he’d probably seen me, on stage and in films, about the same number of times that I’d seen him over the 35 years or so of our careers.  About 13.  Doesn’t really matter.   I’d like to think though, that given time and space we’d get on.  We have mutual friends and acquaintances.  Alan Bleasdale.  Andrew Ranken.  Bound to be others.   But.  He hasn’t listened to any of my albums though.  I don’t have any albums.

My Pop Life #123 : Philosophy – Ben Folds Five

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Philosophy   –   Ben Folds Five

..I see that there is evil and I know that there is good

But the in-between I’ve never understood…

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Ben Folds Five

It was on the radio in August 1995 that I first heard Ben Folds Five.  They were amazing.  The music sounded hand-crafted specially for me – pure major-chord bright-eyed sophisticated pop music fronted by a piano; witty songs, arrangements and lyrics and brilliant music with no guitars.  I’ve never been a huge fan of the guitar to be honest – so of course here follows a list of exceptions <sigh>  :  Jimi Hendrix, Joe Walsh, Blue Oyster Cult, QOTSA, Sex Pistols, George Harrison, Elmore James, Django Reinhardt, Paco de Lucia, Guy Clark, Franco & TPOK Jazz, The Ramones etc etc

But the piano.  Come on.  The finest musical instrument.  An orchestra in two hands.  Bach. Chopin.  Erik Satie.  Debussy.  Scott Joplin.   James P. Johnson.   Rachmaninov.  Ellington.  Fats Waller.  Teddy Wilson.  Art Tatum.  Count Basie.  Fats Domino.  Ray Charles.  Randy Newman.  Alan Price.  Ian McLagan.  Gilbert O’Sullivan.  Kate Bush.  Ben Folds.

Hey – whose Pop Life is it anyway ?

Ben Folds was the pianist.  Darren Jessee was the drummer.  Robert Sledge played bass.

Just three of them, and they called the band Ben Folds Five.  Sounded better I suppose.

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The first single was called “Underground” and it sounded amazing on the radio.  Amazing enough for me to go out and find the CD somewhere.  Called “Ben Folds Five“, it had a picture of a piano on the front cover.   It was excellent.   Packed chock-full of ideas, the songs were about college, leaving college, being a young adult, looking back, growing up.   Many styles.   Some were like Elton John, some were rock music, some were like music hall/ragtime, others like prog.   And they could play.   Folds himself is clearly classically trained, returned to pop.  The fuzz bass is a huge part of the sound.  And the backing vocals.  My favourite track on that first LP is called Philosophy and it is a little impenetrable lyrically – theories abound that it is about an architect, the Statue of Liberty, Ben’s cock.  Seriously.  (He made a joke about it once and everyone remembered it).   But I think it’s about having your own self-image, your own take on life and your path through it.  Your own philosophy that “keeps your feet on the ground, keeps you walking when you fall down”.    Without that you’re a cypher.

I immediately set about learning it on the piano.  It is a beautiful thing.   But very soon I was off to Australia on a gig, and by the time I came back we were completing on a house purchase in Brighton.

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Mollie Jules-Crompton

Cut to November 1996, one year later and Jenny and I are babysitting for Mollie’s girls Dominique, Kimberley and Courtnie (who was only one year old!) in Ruislip for a week.   Mollie – Jenny’s older (but not oldest) sister, married to Pete a year before us – was in hospital under observation because she was pregnant again, and she’d already lost two previous pregnancies desperately trying for a boy.   Mollie & Pete had three very beautiful and fabulous girls – still do – but they both wanted a boy, even at some risk to Mollie’s health.  It was a worrying time for us all.  Mollie was also showing signs of auto-immune disease Lupus once again to complicate things.   At this point at the end of November she was six months pregnant and there had been some alarm so Jen and I stepped in and said we could stay overnight there for a few nights.   Pete was working nights at that point.

Anyway, come November 26th we got Jenny’s two younger sisters Mandy and Lucy to stand in for us as babysitters because we had two tickets to see Ben Folds Five at the Astoria in London’s Charing Cross Road.  Over a year after the album was released this was their first tour of the UK.

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The Astoria, Charing Cross Road, London

The Astoria was one of those great London venues which has now been destroyed to make way for Crossrail, the project that allows bankers to whizz into the City from Heathrow in half an hour.   It is responsible for the current destruction of Soho as a unique bohemian corner of London.   I didn’t see that many shows there, but David Bowie in 2001, and this from Ben Folds Five are up there with the best moments.

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Ben Folds Five live

They played the whole album and some interesting covers – Ray Charles You Don’t Know Me and Elton John’s Tiny Dancer – and absolutely smashed Philosophy and Underground with Ben jumping onto the piano and playing it with his fists and feet at one point.  Good show.  We came out and Jenny immediately called her sisters to find out if all was well.  We’d driven in from Ruislip – I think I had a Jag at that point – some gas guzzling blue monster that I loved driving – and Jenny suddenly burst into tears on the street as we walked round to Soho Square.  “Mollie’s had a baby boy” she said through sobs…”he’s in an incubator”.

We drove to the hospital and found Mollie, exhausted but happy, wth Pete, and Jenny’s Mum & Dad, and there was a tiny little precious baby boy in a transparent incubator, tubes going into his nostrils as his tiny hands tried to pull them out – it was a good sign.  He was three months premature.  He weighed less than a bag of sugar – 2lbs.  In those early days there was much worry about brain damage and stunted growth and all kinds of things, but those early struggles to remove his nose tubes were a sign of strength through adversity and slowly but surely he was removed from the incubator and grew into the healthy young nephew that Jenny and her sisters called ‘Boy’ after the youngest, Cookie had named him.

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Robert, Jordan and Cookie in 2006

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Robert – June 17th 2007 when he was 11

Robert is now 18 years old and a more throughly great young man I couldn’t wish to know.  Thoughtful, funny, gentle but nobody’s fool.

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Robert Jules-Crompton and I in 2013

 I’m not sure he even knows this story about his nativity – from our side anyway.  I doubt he’s heard this song.   But I know he has his own philosophy which keeps his feet on the ground.  Jenny and I took him to see Tottenham v Chelsea one day for a birthday present a few years ago.  All Jenny’s family are Tottenham Hotspur fans.  Oh well.

It’s now November 2015, some 20 years after that first Ben Folds Five LP was released, and two days ago Robert’s nan Bet, Pete’s Mum, passed away in Yarmouth.  Cycles of birth and death.  She will live on inside us all, inside all who knew her.  But death is a loss, and it has been a sad week. Rest in Peace Nanny Bet.

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Pete, Kimberley, Bet, Dominique in 2013

*

Ben Folds Five did two more LPs : Whatever & Ever Amen and The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner – both outstanding;  an LP of B-sides, and then split.  Ben Folds did some cracking solo LPs himself – notably Rockin’ The Suburbs and Songs For Silverman, and Ben Folds Five reformed for one last LP The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind in 2012.

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Robert with his nephew Kian, Dominique’s son in 2012

Philosophy, the song, has a moment towards the end when everything goes mental and Ben’s pounded piano solo turns into a quotation from Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody In Blue’, that mighty work from 1924 which has come to symbolise New York, via Woody Allen’s Manhattan and various other cultural markers.  Soon I will get the famous cadence – the theme from Rhapsody in Blue – tattooed onto my left arm. Sometime this November.

LP track

Live from Jools in 1996

Reformed band in 2010

My Pop Life #122 : The Sensual World – Kate Bush

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The Sensual World   –   Kate Bush

…And how we’d wished to live in the sensual world
You don’t need words–just one kiss, then another.
Stepping out of the page into the sensual world…

June 18th 1997 was my 40th birthday.  In a happy turn of events, I was working.  Even happier, and this was no co-incidence, I was working with Jenny Jules, who had been my wife since 1992.  We were filming a BBCtv drama series about slavery called A Respectable Trade.

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Emma, Warren, Ariyon

 It starred Warren Clarke, may his soul rest in peace;  Emma Fielding, who has since then taken up residence around my childhood holy grounds of Hailsham, and now Kingston nr Lewes;  Ariyon Bakare, Clinton Blake, Hugh Quarshie, who would soon be working with me again (funny how that happens);  Graham Fox, Richard Briers, Anna Massey, Tanya Moodie and some wonderful children who played, along with Ariyon, Jenny, Tanya and Clinton, the slaves.  It was a good show, centred around a love affair between unhappily married Emma and handsome slave Ariyon, and it didn’t pull any punches…

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Richard Briers in particular playing a slave trader who wanted a woman (Tanya) “brought up” for sex, so that they could “mix the stock” in one memorable and ugly scene.  He knew that his fans would be shocked to see him playing this character, but he was determined to nail his colours to the mast and expose the dark reality of English history.  We filmed in Bristol in the Slave Museum complete with manacled cellar; Longleat House, Bath, and Charlestown in Cornwall.  The show was an adaptation by Philippa Gregory of her own historical novel and has never been repeated by the BBC, despite auspicious anniversaries coming and going.  I can only wonder how on earth it got made in the first place.

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see Jenny at the bottom of pic with slave collar

Perhaps because of the darkness of the story and subject matter we were a tight and close company and with a couple of exceptions, notably the director, have remained in touch.  We had a bloody laugh actually.  I’ll talk about the whole experience in another post, but

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on my birthday we had been filming in Charlestown, a small port village south of St Austell in Cornwall that is a perfectly preserved Georgian quayside complete with tall ships.  I think we were all in the pub during the early part of the evening when my agent Michael Foster called.  Early days of mobile phones I expect.  Pretty sure I had an Eriksson.  I don’t think Michael wished me Happy Birthday, agents don’t usually do things like that, they have enough to think about, but he did tell me that I’d been offered a role in the new Star Wars film which was to be The Phantom Menace.  Episode One.  I started to become happy when he pulled me up.  “Wait” he said.  “The money is shit” he said.  “It can’t be” I said, “It’s Star Wars, the most successful franchise in film history.”  “I’m sorry ”  he said.

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They want you for four weeks,” he said, “at five grand a week, total buy-out.  No repeat fees, no royalties, residuals, extras, billing, fruit or flowers.”  He didn’t actually say the bit about the fruit and flowers but the offer was clear, stark, final.  “Oh and they also said that if you said ‘no’, there were forty people in line behind you for that part, who would in all likelihood be prepared to take even less money.”  Of course they would.  “Sleep on it” said Michael, dear Michael.  “Have a good evening.”

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Clinton, Emma, Jenny, Graham, Ariyon in 1997

We did, dear reader.  We all retired to our wee cottage on the hill and got drunk and stoned, listening to my wife DJ-ing till the wee small hours.  It was my birthday you see.  It’s a kind of tradition.  The hit song that stayed with us was Kate Bush singing The Sensual World.  The sexiest song ever.  Jenny loved to play it at houseparties and watch people dance together, occasionally joining in if they were lucky.  I was lucky since it was er my birthday, but Ariyon and Clinton were too I believe.

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This song has followed Jenny and I around since it came out in 1989, the year when we finally decided that we would…yes…be a couple.  Played at home, in car journeys, at parties, on Sony Walkmen and ipods.  It opens with church bells like one or two other classic English pop songs I could mention, but which have now evaporated from my mind like so much of my life.  Then a light whip of the Fairlight synthesiser and Kate’s “mmmm…yes” takes us into an entirely sexual and original song, comprised of pieces of the world and Kate’s mind.  She was playing with the Trio Bulgarka around this time, getting inspiration from more eastern sounds, as she had with “Hello Earth” off Hounds Of Love which uses a Georgian choral hymn.  A Macedonian wedding song inspired the music of The Sensual World, with Irish instruments and James Joyce‘s Ulysses inspiring the idea, the moment when heroine Molly Bloom has the final word of the novel and leaps from the page into the sensual world :

“…I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish Wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes. “

The Joyce estate refused permission for Kate to use those words as lyrics for the song, so she wrote her own, referencing Blake’s JerusalemAnd my arrows of desire rewrite the speech” using a mesmerising melody on the Uileann pipes for the hook, played by Davey Spillane.  In the video Kate dances through the woods, barefoot.   

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Later in 2011 a new LP called Director’s Cut was released, on it new versions of much of this LP and 1993’s The Red Shoes, particularly this song, now renamed Flower Of The Mountain recorded with the now-allowed Joyce passage as lyrics, and the same breathy, orgasmic “Yes…” dominating the soundscape.

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I think it’s one of the sexiest songs ever recorded.  I listened and danced to it as I turned 40.   I prayed for wisdom, but little came.   I burned for success and yes, it came and slapped me down, hard.  I longed for happiness, and when I let go and stopped longing, well then, eventually, it came.

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from The Sensual World 1989 :

Nevestinsko Oro, or Macedonian Bride’s Dance :

Flower Of The Mountain, from Director’s Cut (2011)