My Pop Life #149 : Little By Little – Dusty Springfield

Little By Little   –   Dusty Springfield

little by little by little by little

In 1985 I had established to my own satisfaction that I was an actor – I’d worked with Steven Berkoff in ‘West’ at the Donmar for five months in 1983, filmed it for Channel 4, done a whole series of ‘The Bill’ as P.C. Muswell, worked at the Royal Court, The Tricycle Theatre, Joint Stock and done some BBC Shakespeare.  But I was still harbouring musical fantasies, and still playing saxophone with a band I’d joined in 1980 called Birds Of Tin.  Most of the band lived on the Pullens Estate in Kennington, between Walworth Road and Kennington Park Road, SE17.  My links with this part of South London were manyfold – I also played football on Sunday mornings with a groups of geezers known as the Hoxton Pirates who also mainly lived there – although (with one or two exceptions) not the same people !  The link was Lewes probably, unwinding out to friends and relations of rabbit.  But I’ll save the Pirates for another post.

Birds Of Tin 1985

Early days – 1979/1980 – we had many many discussions about the name of the band, and initially, after rejecting The Deeply Ashamed (Pete Thomas suggestion) and Go Go Dieppe (I’ll claim that one) we settled on Parma Violets.  {I think that name has now been taken by another group.}   At some point I’d had a sax audition for Ranken’s Romeos aka The Operation, an outfit which contained Simon Korner AND his brother Joe but which was led by Andrew Ranken who’d been in the year above us in school and who was going out with Deborah Korner, Simon and Joe’s elder sister.  He would shortly join The Pogues as their drummer, but was lead singer in The Operation and Patrick Freyne was on drums.  I was nervous and a little underprepared.  In retrospect Andrew perhaps didn’t fancy my fashion-victim appearance and vibe I suspect, for he suggested without warm-up or pre-amble doing a song in the key of B.  It was a musical ambush.  I had never played a song in the key of B in my life – it’s not common, like E or A or G or D.   I know that’s no excuse by the way.

Emma Peters & I in Joe Korner’s flat, Glebe Estate, Peckham 1979

As I explained in My Pop Life #80 the saxophone is pitched 3 semitones above concert pitch (ie the piano) so sax players have to adjust 3 semitones down when the key gets called.  Thus my audition was in Ab.  A fucking flat.  I made an abysmal mess of an attempt and put the horn back into it’s velveteen lined case, tail firmly tucked between my legs.  The Operation carried on and now play as The Mysterious Wheels and a version of this band played at my wedding to Jenny (see My Pop Life #126) where I was on saxophone alongside Jem Finer from The Pogues and an extra fella called Chris because Andrew still didn’t think I had the chops (!)    Fair enough I probably didn’t.

Joe Korner on the keyboards, Tom Anthony on drums

But later that year – 1980 – after that miserable audition failure –  another band was formed : the aforementioned Parma Violets, to play mainly original material emanating from Joe Korner and old Rough Justice buddy Conrad Ryle.   For some reason Simon didn’t join Parma Violets.  But Patrick did, and Emma Peters on violin and vocals, and Joe’s mate Sam Watson, who was a friend of Leonie’s brother, on bass.  Leonie Rushforth was Simon’s girlfriend whom he’d met in Cambridge.   We used to rehearse at midnight in Mount Pleasant Studios off Gray’s Inn Road in a studio owned by Animal Magnet, a Cambridge band that Simon was also playing in.

Incestuous and vain, and many other last names.

This line-up : Joe, Conrad, Patrick, Emma, Sam and I – produced a demo tape in a studio in Guildford where’s Sam’s mate was doing a Music Degree and our five songs were part of his final year project.  Free to those who can afford it.  It was all of our first time in a studio and was really quite thrilling.  I double-tracked the saxophone on one song making a simple chord with myself.  The singular joy of harmony.  But in the end we weren’t that happy with the finished result.  Then Patrick left, then Conrad left and I took a sabbatical and went to Mexico in order to contract one of the major viral infections, Hepatitus B (see My Pop Life #31 or My Pop Life #24).  I came back and lay down for a few months.

Emma Peters on violin

We played two covers I recall – possibly more.  One was 300 lbs of Heavenly Joy by Howling Wolf, and the other was this song Little By Little by Dusty Springfield.   Emma loved this song.  People danced to it when we played it live.  It’s mid-period Dusty, 1966, so after those classic early singles I Only Wanna Be With You, Middle Of Nowhere and I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself but before the pinnacle of Dusty In Memphis and Son Of A Preacher Man (1968).

Dusty was a cool cat.   She was deported with her band The Echoes from apartheid South Africa in 1964 for playing an integrated concert in Cape Town – despite a clause in her contract – one of the first artists to refuse to play for segregated audiences.  She introduced the British public to Tamla Motown in 1965 when she fronted the Motown Revue on Rediffusion Television, with live performances from Diana Ross & The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations and Martha Reeves, a show produced by Vicki Wickham from Ready Steady Go and now our dear friend in New York (see My Pop Life #135).  Dusty found a beautiful Italian ‘schmaltzy song’ as she called it, at a singing festival in San Remo in ’65 (she reached the semi final) and her friends Vicki Wickham and Simon Napier Bell wrote English words and she recorded it.  It went to Number One in June 1966 as You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me.  That autumn she had her own TV show called simply Dusty.

She is the greatest British female singer of my lifetime, and the most successful, certainly until Adele.  Her taste and her style were impeccable, and she graciously lived up to her billing as our greatest blue-eyed soul singer.  She also did backing vocals on friends’ LPs billed as Gladys Thong, notably Madeline Bell & Kiki Dee (both backing this single) and also Anne Murray and Elton John.    Little By Little was written by Bea Verdi and Buddy Kaye, who wrote several of her hits including Middle Of Nowhere.

I cannot remember if we continued to play Little By Little when the band reformed a little later as Birds Of Tin, but by then the new line-up had recorded a simply fantastic demo-tape in Joe’s flat with a drum machine called BoT.  It showcased the very best of his songwriting including one called It Never Rains :

Thursday night, General Election, Friday night, burns all the paintings

Sunday night, the separation, Tuesday’s gone in desperation…

It never rains…

I thought they were a great band and shortly after hearing that c90 cassette I rejoined.  I think it was now 1983.  Maybe I’d been doing The Bill or – more likely Moving Parts Theatre Company, who toured the land in a beat-up transit with self-written plays to politically educate the youth.  Hahaha – for another post I feel !!

Sam, Joe, Linsey, Emma

The new line-up had Tat on guitar (quiet, introspective, folk-oriented, but liked a laugh) instead of Conrad, and Tom Anthony on drums (amicable, rock-steady and played centre-half for The Hoxton Pirates on occasion) instead of Patrick.   Sam was the only one who hadn’t been at Priory – an essentially happy, friendly and easy-going fellow, he also played centre-half for Hoxton Pirates with Tom and played bass for Birds Of Tin.   Emma was a lovely clear singer and cracking violinist who went on to make LPs with The Clarke Sisters an Irish/folk outfit in the late 1990s. Then Linsey joined as a second vocalist around the same time as me, also playing percussion, lovely harmonies, and that became the classic Birds Of Tin combo.  We drifted towards the exotic sounds of Eastern Europe, did an instrumental called Smilkino Kolo which originated in Croatia I think (then called Yugoslavia of course), and another instrumental called Istanbul – could’ve been Turkish but it sounded Greek to me…

Me, Linsey on percussion, Tat on guitar

Emma did full spirited gypsy violin on these numbers and I made my sax sound like a battered didicoy trumpet.  We still played Joe’s songs, and some by Sam too – but with the same sax-and-violin attack.  There was a Madness influence if anything, maybe a sprinkle of Talking Heads and definitely hand-picked lucky dip World Music.  There was another song that I sourced from a Bollywood tape which Mumtaz and I had in our flat in Finsbury Park – can I remember the name, the film, the song – no!  but I wrote new lyrics inspired by William Blake and the new song was called Dangerous Garden.   That song really did swing.  I suspect it remains the only song I’ve ever written.

Linsey, Emma, Tat, Me

Musically we were a good band.  Good players and singers, good harmonies, tight rhythm section, good turnarounds and middle eights.  Interesting mid-80s crossover indie I suppose.  Pop music with flavour.  We never got a record deal anywhere.  We never had a manager, or any really decent contacts.  There was a kind of quiet refusal to wear any uniform or even matching vibes.  I – quite naturally – was happy to go onstage in full shalwa-kamiz of a soft blue colour, but Emma & Lins aside, the rest of the band balked at dressing up. Sam looked like Sting AND he played bass, and he used to wear pedal pushers and chinese slippers but Joe and Tat and Tom weren’t having a clothes-matching competition.  We did quite a few gigs too, a residency at The Four Aces in Dalston on Monday nights where the audience consisted of 3 rastas (“play more Russian music!“), some local SE17 events, some outdoor festivals and notably a support to The Men They Couldn’t Hang at the Corn Exchange in Brighton.

Sam Watson on the bass guitar

There were tensions in the band – it’s a band after all – and after Sam went out with Linsey for a large part of the middle period it all ended quite literally in tears and Sam subsequently listened to Elvis Costello‘s Man Out Of Time from Imperial Bedroom 20 times in a row in desolation one night.   Then a natural break came when I was offered Macbeth at the Liverpool Everyman and I had to choose – acting, or music?

It’s a shame that no BoT songs survive on digital format – because I would include one here to showcase that moment in time.  But we have Dusty, and we have the treasure of these photos from IGA studios in 1985.  I always loved rehearsals and these pictures capture some of that joy – just making music together is a pleasure.   I distinctly remember walking around in that tartan suit that spring thinking “So – it’s tartan – what of it??” as people stared me down, but all photos of the garms in question have been in an attic box until now.  This set from Ian McIntyre, a whoosh into the past.  Who are those young kit cats ?

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My Pop Life #148 : Lost Highway – Hank Williams

Lost Highway   –   Hank Williams

I’m a rollin’ stone all alone and lost
For a life of sin I have paid the cost
When I pass by all the people say
Just another guy on the lost highway

Late ’88 I’m driving down Highway 20 towards El Paso, Texas.  Apart from ordering food and gas I haven’t spoken to anyone for over three days,  I’m almost out of money, my credit card has started bouncing and it’ll be Christmas in 4 days.  I think it’s possibly the most all alone and lost I’ve ever been in my life, but I’m kind of happy in a self-pityingly dramatic kind of way.  O Me Misererum.  One of life’s natural wallowers in misery, (wallow, not wallflower) I was pretty vacant, alone, solo, half-empty and broke.  Mile after mile after mile of desert scrub, punctuated by dull dipping oil derricks and the odd bridge.  The lost highway.  Abilene.  I knew that from a Nanci Griffith song. Lone Star State of Mind, deep in the fart of Texas.   There was a kind of masochistic pointlessness to the drive which suited me perfectly.

I’d gone into Auto Driveaway in Washington D.C. on December 16th and got a car to deliver.  You give them a deposit of $200 and get five days to drive to say, Dallas.  If you drive like a wanker, which is not allowed but who’s checking, you can spend a day somewhere along the route and still deliver on time.  I drove like a wanker through Virginia and West Virginia and crashed out in a motel in Bristol, Eastern Tennessee on day 1, got to Nashville on Day 2 (noted previously in My Pop Life #83) spent all of Day 3 in Nashville bopping around, drove to Memphis on Day 4 and mooched around Graceland and Beale St, got ripped off by the Mack man to the tune of $350 which is most of what I had on me, then delivered the car to an address in Dallas on Day 5 after driving through Arkansas.  

Oh you want more on the Mack man?  The phrase has now gone out of use thanks to the computer age, but you might have heard of the Mack Daddy, also going out of use.  We heard about him the following spring when I returned to D.C. with my new girlfriend Jenny for an awards ceremony.  A barbecue at a Hubert’s yard, one fella had delighted us in spinning his rap on The MackMan.  He’s the man who you can’t trust.  He’s a good talker.  He’s on your side.  He can help you get what you want, what you need.  He’s your buddy.  Oh yeah, he’s good, real good.  Then he fucks off with your money.  That’s who the mac man is.  He’s a pimp.  He’s a hustler.  The Mack Man can spot a fool from 40 paces, and wandering on Beale St, Memphis, birth of the fucking blues, he’d seen me.  Would you walk away from a Fool and His Money ?   So that was that, on the road again, Memphis had come and gone and been really great by the way, love that city, and when I’d delivered the car, the grateful owner did the decent thing and driven me to the Autodriveaway office in downtown Dallas – thence to choose a new car.  I chose the red open top 2-seater Mercedes from 1967. Can’t remember why. Where’s that car going?  I asked. It doesn’t work like that she said, where are you going?  I looked at her, short and frumpy and bad-tempered.  Not a very American attitude. They are usually so friendly and generous and willing.  She was a cow.   I’m not going anywhere I said.   No plans.  No destination.  She looked at me like I’d tricked her.  I was supposed to have a destination. I just genuinely didn’t have one.   I’d lost my UK girlfriend Rita earlier in 1988, and although I was seeing someone in England it didn’t feel official at all.   I’d had a relationship in Washington D.C., which lasted until I left town at the beginning of rehearsals and mongrel shagger Paul had stepped into my shoes and my girlfriend’s bed.  So now I was licking wounds and driving WEST WHEREVER.  I was as alone and lost as I’ll ever be in all likelihood.  I didn’t say all that.  But I wasn’t lying.  No destination, no expectations.  So she gave me the Mercedes.  It was going to Phoenix, Arizona. Another five-day ride.

I figured Texas would be boring but I was still stultified and unprepared for just how   b  o  r  i  n  g Highway 20 was. I drove into El Paso on the afternoon of Day 3, found a hotel and then drove into Juarez across the bridge over the Rio Grande.  It was Mexico.  First time I’d been there since 1980 (see My Pop Life #31).  

The bridge was the border, but not really.   I had some proper Mexican food and crossed back into the USA and slept.   The following day I drove out towards New Mexico and crossed the actual border about 5 miles outside El Paso on Highway 10.   Passport, everything. The little red Merc was driving well, guzzling gas, and I had to choose gas stations where they didn’t have the new-fangled credit card machines that were electronically connected to the bank and the rest of the world.  I sought out the ones with a piece of grey tracing paper that got rubbed over your card leaving a blackish imprint which you had to sign. Then I could fill up, and make sure I bought provisions too.  The electronic machines refused the Access Card – I was over my limit. Oh well. Made me feel more like an outlaw.

The reality was dull and lonely of course.  The lonely road.  Actually the road in New Mexico is pretty special, one of the great drives I’ve been on.  Red baked earth, blue sky, adobe dwellings and building, grey tarmac.  Country music on the radio mainly.  Washington D.C. And the theatre company who’d stabbed me in the back dwindled further and further into the distance.   Ahead of me was nothing.  It was a strange glorious empty sad feeling.  The white lines, the rolling tyres, the sun treading across the sky, the minutes ticking past, the gas tank slowly emptying, the feelings of sorrow and freedom, the man alone driving into the future, the rolling stone, all alone and lost, as night falls once more, a few more miles, a few more and there’s a cheap motel, there’s a place to crash, a parking lot, a giant empty sky. But, being a romantic, I stubbed my eyes upon the wheeling spokeshave of the stars.

Alun Lewis wrote that last line – one of my Dad’s favourites. Nicked it for the first play I ever wrote “Drive Away The Darkness” which itself is a quote from a Rolf Harris song ‘Sun Arise‘. Irony as one imagines his wandering fingers brought a fair bit of Darkness into young girl’s lives over the years.

Tombstone, Arizona

On Day 5 I rolled into Phoenix after a brief look round Tombstone and the Boothill Graveyard, resting place of the Clanton brothers, murdered by Wyatt Earp and his brothers Virgil, Warren and Morgan and Doc Holliday in the Gunfight at the OK Corral in 1881.  The so-called gunfight lasted around 20 seconds and established the Earp family as ascendant in this part of the West. They became the law, literally, which is to say that Wyatt Earp became sheriff.   Much of the history of the U.S.A. has this violent gangster-ised quality (as does the history of man in general I hasten to add) where the winners write the history and the “good guys” always win.  I had always wanted to write the true history of Tombstone, a kind of anti-history where the Clantons are the heroes who get murdered.  But that’s the kind of warped twerp I am – always running against the wind, swimming against the tide.  

Well, now the tide had dumped me in Phoenix, where the Reverend Diane had said I would have my turning point when I spoke with her in D.C.   And you know, when people predict things, sometimes they do come true.   Maybe particularly if you want them to.   I delivered the car and back at the office was told that I couldn’t take the next car to Los Angeles.  Why ?  Because it was Christmas Eve today, LA was only a one-day delivery, and the office was closed on Christmas Day. They couldn’t give me the car for an extra day !!   No no.  No. So where was I going ?   The same old question.  What you got?  I asked.  They had Portland, Oregon.  That was like driving into winter, but it was further West.  And way further North.  I wonder what would have happened if I’d taken that car.  And this Brown Oldsmobile is going to Dallas, Texas.  Where I’d been five days earlier.  Turning point ?  Rising from the ashes ?  The definition of futility ?  Time to stop all of these rolling stone fantasies and go back home ?  Not quite.

Hank Williams was a major influence on country music in America despite dying at the young age of 29. Born with spina bifida, he used pain killers and alcohol all his life especially after an accident led to further pain. From Montgomery, Alabama, Hank (christened Hiram) learned guitar chords and turnarounds from black blues singer Rufus ‘Tee Tot’ Payne, a fact he acknowledged years later. He recorded his first hit Move It On Over in 1947 after slogging around the circuit for years, spending the war shipbuilding in Mobile, Alabama and singing for the sailors in the evenings.  The spinal injury and another fall had excused him from service but he was already an alcoholic. Roy Acuff, country music pioneer told him “You have a million-dollar talent son, but a ten cent brain.”  Move It On Over was a huge hit, and Hank Williams spent the next six years playing live and recording his 31 singles before dying on a car journey between gigs in 1952. 

Lost Highway was written by Leon Payne, a blind country singer, and its combination of doomed romantic drifter schtick and self-mythologising misogyny was perfect for Williams.  It was also perfect for my self-pitying road trip, a man searching for his soul, for himself, a man who had never been single in his adult life but was trying it on for size and frankly, hating it.  Little did I know (or did I?) that the most important relationship of my entire life was literally days away.  

Hank Williams Sr sings to Hank Williams Jr

Lost Highway was a minor hit for Williams but remains a major song.   Dylan and Joan Baez sing it in Don’t Look Back the famous Pennebaker documentary from 1965.  It remains the anthem for the single man.  

Lost Highway is also a fantastic book by that greatest of music writers Peter Guralnick, author of Last Train To Memphis and Careless Love the two-part Elvis Presley biography, as well as books about soul music, blues, Sam Cooke and Sam Phillips. Lost Highway is a personal review of the history of American music, featuring Ernest Tubb, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Elvis Presley, Merle Haggard, and Sleepy LaBeef.   It’s absolutely brilliant.  

I started driving back to Dallas on Christmas Day 1988.

 

 

My Pop Life #147 : Days – The Kinks

Days   –   The Kinks

thank you for the days….those endless days, those sacred days you gave me

I’m thinking of the days…

Red Admiral

I hated my Mum and my Dad when I was growing up.  Who didn’t ?  Especially as a teenager.  Then again later, in therapy in my late twenties/early 30s.  They fuck you up your mum and dad they do not want to but they do…  Mine sure did.  Jeez,  didn’t yours ?  Mine were a) mentally ill and b) absent.  A badge I wore for years, a cross I carried up the hill from Gethsemane.  Hi, I’m fucked-up, how are you?  Then I grew out of all that and made friends with my parents again.  Took responsibility  for my own life and stopped feeling so hard done by.   Then I forgave them for making mistakes, for being young.  For separating.  And for everything.  If they annoy me now, I still get annoyed – of course.  But there’s no residual anger. I don’t think.  Now I feel lucky that they’re both still alive (Feb 20th 2016). And that they are both my friends.

Peacocks

In 1968 my Dad was in Eastbourne in a bedsit flat off Terminus Road.  We’d visit on Saturdays, have lunch at Ceres Salad Bar and then walk to Beachy Head, be back for the James Alexander Gordon football results and Sports Report.  We’d never talk about Mum.   Back in Selmeston Mum would talk about Dad now and again, or John Brown as she called him, we all called him that in fact.  Later he became JB for me and my brothers.  Mum would tell me things I didn’t want to know about, why they split up and so on.  Lurid details of conversations and incidents that eleven year-old boys don’t need to know about. My memory of those years is blurred naturally, but Mum wasn’t entirely alone bringing up three boys in a Sussex village – she had Stan at one point, (see My Pop Life #63) and her friend Heather at another point, both in 1968/69.

Small Tortoiseshell

Stan was Australian and worked at Arlington Reservoir, digging out a huge hole in the Weald where water would be stored for the surrounding farms and villages.  He was our lodger, and Mum’s lover.  Later on, when he went back to Australia and left Mum with a broken heart,  she bought a single called “Part Of My Past“by Simon Dupree & the Big Sound and wept while listening to it.   Even worse was a song called Skyline Pigeon by Guy Darrell : “fly away…”  She took all of these records deadly seriously, and we respected that.  They were treated like living breathing things with immense power.  Emotional bombs.  They were her and our soundtrack.

Marbled White

On sunny days we would make a picnic up, take a tablecloth and cups and crisps and buckets and spades and walk up the village – Mum and three boys – then take a sharp left by the church and heading through the path and overhanging trees to the most sacred spot of my youth – the sandpit.  Mum later confessed that she felt secretly ashamed that we weren’t getting on a bus and going to the beach somewhere, but to us the sandpit was simply a magical place.

Comma

The path carried on towards Berwick across the fields, but there on the right, tucked away, was a small patch of trodden grass which led to a clearing – and an area completely overgrown and wild.  A half-dozen acres probably with patches of exposed sand in cliffs and banks, other areas of marsh, other densely wooded parts and some open space with short tufts of grass where we settled and laid the tablecloth and ate our sandwiches.  Mum would bring the transistor radio, but wouldn’t always play it because the rustling of the leaves, the birdsong and the silence was better.

Adonis Blue  f & m

There were butterflies everywhere – the usual Small Tortoiseshells, Peacocks, Gatekeepers, Speckled Woods, Red Admirals and Common Blues all in abundance, and more unusual ones too – Clouded Yellows, Small Coppers, Adonis Blues, Brimstones and Orange Tips.  Marbled Whites!  We spent hours identifying them from a book – the Observer Book of British Butterflies, which always got packed along with the paste sandwiches.  Shippams.  Or Marmite.  Peanut Butter.  Delicious. White sliced bread. Of course !

Brimstone

We were always alone in the sandpit, never once did we sight anyone else, or even hear them.  It was our place.  It was always a sunny afternoon.   It was always peaceful.  Some days Paul and I would go there on our own, and one day with my friend Martin Coleman we found a grass snake, also unusual.  The slow-worms were pretty common – actually not snakes but legless lizards whose tails fell off if you picked them up the wrong way.  There were plenty of actual lizards there too.  Sometimes we would bring back a skull of a small mammal – a squirrel perhaps, a fox, a weasel.  And the bird-life was also rich.

Clouded Yellow

It was the butterflies though that captured our imaginations.  And we in turn captured them.  As we got older and learned about methods of capture we suddenly had nets, jars, and at home, chloroform to put them to sleep.  Two in particular were pinned under glass – a Small Tortoiseshell and a magnificent Clouded Yellow.  Treasure.  Near us in Alfriston was Drusillas, a mini-zoo with toy railway and a butterfly house, with an exhibit of every single species of British Butterfly – there are 63 altogether – and some foreign ones too including the spectacular irridescent Morpho.

Wall

Of course grown-up Ralph finds this behaviour abhorrent now – the decline in butterfly numbers in the UK is truly alarming, mainly thanks  to farming chemicals and loss of habitat – hedgerows and meadows, but the collecting didn’t help and no one does this now.  We have all learned to cherish our world in a different way.   It only serves to reinforce the innocence of those days in the sandpit.  Whatever misery was upon us, whether financial, emotional, mental or spiritual, those trips down that secret path past the church to the sandpit healed us, nourished us, gave us a reason to be.   A reason to believe.

Days was released at the end of June 1968.  I’d just turned 11, and I wouldn’t be going back to the village school.  I’d passed the eleven plus (at the age of ten!) and was on my way to Lewes Grammar – a long bus journey away.  Things were changing.  It was exciting.  I was about to outgrow the village, and my friends.  The Kinks were very popular in our house, we loved everything they did.  Songwriter and singer Ray Davies was like a raconteur troubadour speaking to us of England.  On 45 rpm of course – the singles market was all we consumed in those days.  I had absolutely no idea that The Kinks‘ LP The Village Green Preservation Society had been released, just as I didn’t have a clue what The White Album was – we had Lady Madonna and Hey Jude and The Marmalade singing Obla-di Obla-da instead.  Leapy Lee singing Little Arrows.  Those Were The Days by Mary Hopkin.  I Can’t Let Maggie Go – an advert for Nimble.  Build Me Up Buttercup by The Foundations.

The best thing about The KinksDays‘ were the harmonies.  Our cousin Wendy used to come up from Portsmouth to visit Mum and they’d go into Eastbourne to get kissed (see My Pop Life #102).  They would also sing together – they’d done it for years in church.  Mum would always sing “thirds” as she called it, in other words two tones above the melody, or Doh-Re-Me.   In fact Days has a suspended 4th –  “Thank you for the Days…” – on the word days, which resolves onto the third at the end of the phrase.  I didn’t know that at the time, but I knew how to sing it thanks to Mum and Wendy.  And thus I was really brought up singing in harmony, to The Seekers (Morningtown Ride, Georgy Girl), The Beatles, MotownBeach Boys and The Kinks and many others.  It was the most natural thing in the world.  So Mum – Thank You for the thirds, the suspended 4ths, the butterflies, the sand-pit and all of the music.  It’s still what makes me happiest.   And yes, thank you for the days.

 

My Pop Life #146 I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times – The Beach Boys

I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times  –   The Beach Boys

…they say I got brains, but they ain’t doin’ me no good.  I wish they could…

Late August 2003.   On the set of Red Light Runners, Harvey Keitel kneels by the altar. Mike Madsen walks slowly up the aisle and kneels next to him.  Keitel is first to speak.

Have you come to kill me dyood ?   he says

That’s how he says it.  Dyood.  The word I wrote is dude.   It’s my screenplay and we are in The Church Of Our Most Holy Redeemer, Exmouth St, Clerkenwell.  I cannot believe my ears.  The scene continues and finishes with Madsen walking back out.  The line-up is finished and the actors go back to their trailers while the lights are assembled and the camera positions established.  Nick Egan the director and I have a quick conflab.  Did you hear what he said ?  Dyood ??   What is going on ?  Nick decides that as the writer, I will go back to Harvey’s trailer and ‘discuss his problems with him’.  So a message is sent via a runner, and five minute later I’m knocking on Keitel’s wagon.

the church interior in Exmouth St

His PA invites me in.  Within a minute it is very clear that Harvey has not read the script. He thinks he is playing an Englishman, and he thinks we talk funny.  We clear that up.  It’s dude.  DUDE.  He asks me about another line.  I explain that his character, Sandy, an ex-CIA priest with a Fagin-esque gang of street kids at his beck and call, is gay.  He is horrified.  It gets weird.  I decide to leave and get myself some breakfast.

Director Nick Egan

I report back to Nick and Michael Wearing and we at least have Mike Madsen on our side. Eventually we get a decent scene, after much huffing and puffing.  I don’t think we turned over until just before lunch though.  By now Harvey is looking over at me after they cut each take and asking “was that OK?“.  It is all quite surreal.   But Red Light Runners was a very strange experience.  See earlier blogs My Pop Life #144 and My Pop Life #145 for the early part of the story.  Nick Egan was very cool and allowed me to sit by the monitors with headphones on, despite the producer Nigel whispering in his ear “Why are you letting Ralph sit there?  It looks weak”.  Nick told him to fuck off.  The central creative team, me, Nick and Michael Wearing were tight, and we weren’t about to be split up.  Various weird things were happening, some of which I knew about and some I didn’t.  But day by day, we were making a film.  It was thrilling.  Jenny was cast.  I was staying in Nick Egan’s flat a couple of days each week rather than slog down to Brighton every day.

           

 Mike Madsen   &   Harvey Keitel

The following day we had to shoot a later scene – Madsen killing Keitel by shooting him through the confession box grille.  It was now clear that one of Harvey’s techniques was to extend the rehearsal part of the day for as long as physically possible, for literally hours at a time, so that we would go over schedule and he would get an extra day’s wages.  It’s an old shitty trick and he was running with it.  So tedious.  Madsen was getting irritable too, but he held it down.  The other issue was very simple : Harvey didn’t want to die onscreen.  He was trying to talk his way out of it at one point and we had to stand firm on the script – we’re shooting this scene, now.  Oh yes we are !  It was truly mental.  Eventually we got it in the can, a day later than scheduled.  Later, much later when Harvey had wrapped and fucked off to Italy while the hotel bill for Claridges was run up – he’d left all his stuff in there – we were shooting another scene in a hotel when Madsen talks to Harvey on the phone.  On one take Madsen lost it and said something along the lines of “I’m glad you’ve wrapped Harvey because you’re a fucking pain in the ass, not only that but I killed you and everybody is gonna know that I killed you, so fuck you.”

There is a Hollywood actor pecking-order of those who have killed, and those who have been killed.  And by whom.  Think about it.

the green dome of the British Museum from Centrepoint roof

Earlier Mike Madsen and I had shot a scene on the balcony at the top of Centrepoint at the bottom of Tottenham Court Road overlooking the British Museum, where we’d planned a major heist  (I was also in the cast).  We’d done car chases through central London, down the Embankment, Blackfriars all the way to the Millenium Dome, then an unused leftover from the celebrations.  We’d flown helicopters over the gherkin building and the river.  We’d shot the White Cube Gallery in Hoxton at a swanky art opening with the cognoscenti, a Turkish arms dealer off Green Lanes in Haringey, and a council block in Southwark with yardie gangs.  I’d had a long chat with Tricky on the top of a London bus (see My Pop Life #61) discussing Chuck D, Public Enemy and Elvis Presley (Elvis was a hero to most but he never meant shit to me) before I offered him my headphones and played him Todd Rundgren‘s  Just Another Onionhead from A Wizard, A True Star one of my top ten LPs.  I told you Red Light Runners was strange.

We’d had a Red Light Runners heist meeting in Centrepoint too, on the day when the bond company sent a man onto the set.  An interesting mix of actors : me, Madsen, Cillian Murphy, Kate Ashfield, Tricky,  Joe Van MoylandHeathcote Williams.  The DP Nick Knowland was great but (like Brian Wilson) deaf in one ear.  The Bond man was obsessed with the two Nicks not apparently communicating properly and demanded that one of them had to go.  We carried on and went to another bond company.  All films need a bond company to insure against loss, otherwise…well.  Let’s say it was a warning.

Chiswick – the CIA headquarters.  My friend Doreene Blackstock did a set visit.  Jonathan Ross and Film 2003 were there, filming interviews with the main cast and director.  Wossy was a big supporter of the project, and there was a buzz around the film by now.  We’d been filming for four weeks with two units: the main unit, and the car and stunt unit.  We had eight weeks of stuff in the can.  Roy Scheider was in town playing the CIA chief and lending an air of gravitas and utter professionalism to a scene with Madsen, Crispin Glover and Rich Hall in the HQ.

Roy Scheider, Rich Hall, Crispin Glover – the CIA

Crispin had his raw foods thanks to a lady from Birmingham we’d found specially.   But the producer Michael Casey wasn’t happy.  Stuff was going on behind the scenes, some kind of power struggle.  We still weren’t bonded.  Casey and his wife decided that day that they were personally taking over the funding of the film, and sacked all the co-producers.  They started talking about actors using the tube to get to work, sacking all the drivers, cutting corners.  Meanwhile none of us had been paid yet.  Normally on a movie the principles – the director, designer, writer, producers – get paid their fee in full on the first day of principal photography.  That day had come and gone.  It was four weeks ago in fact.  And Chris the designer decided that he wasn’t coming in on Monday unless he was paid.  It became clear that the caterer had been feeding the unit with his own money.  The word went round the set – we wouldn’t be shooting on Monday, but on Wednesday.  The schedule meant that Monday was in Salisbury, blowing up a church in the Iowa cornfields, the opening sequence and Jenny’s scenes.   Jenny had cancelled her last week on the Vagina Monologues in order to be in Red Light Runners.  We also had Peter O’Toole lined up for Salisbury Cathedral.  Now it wobbled.

Tuesday another phone call came – we wouldn’t shoot on Wednesday but the following Monday.  Then another call.  Then another.  Then another.  After two months of this Nick Egan flew back to Los Angeles, leaving his suits and luggage in the rented flat where he’d been staying and which was now locked by the landlords because they hadn’t been paid either.

Each time things start to happen again, I think I got something good going for myself and what goes wrong ?

O cuando sere? Un dia sere” (“When will I be? One day I will be”)

Sometimes I feel very sad…

Originally I chose 2+2=5 for this story, because that was the feeling, and it was a 2003 song.  But it’s a Thom Yorke song about society, about passivity and 1984 so it was rejected for an ironic Hey Ya by Outkast, also a 2003 hit.  But it wasn’t right either.  Next up was Bowie’s Quicksand because that line

Don’t believe in yourself, don’t deceive with belief…

was my primary feeling to emerge from this fiasco.  But that song doesn’t line up either and deserves better than this story.  I didn’t want to write another film, or a play, or anything.  My friends in StompLuke Cresswell and Steve McNicholas actually did commission a script in November from me, like a soft landing, that’s for another story, and after that another half-hearted film which flickered briefly and fell.  But my heart wasn’t in it, and in many ways still isn’t.  How easily discouraged I am.  How fragile the ego.  Where’s the resilience, the iron will, the inner strength.  No idea.  I squashed it I think.  I felt weak, I felt destroyed to be honest.  Devastated.

In the end I’ve gone for a Pet Sounds song from 1966, a very personal brave lyric from Tony Asher and Brian Wilson about Brian feeling that he was too advanced musically for his band The Beach Boys and that he was literally living in the wrong era.  It doesn’t fit either, but many of the lines kill me to this day, and the feeling is right.   It’s a mournful, rich, delicate ethereal song that is somehow true.   By then the Brighton Beach Boys, my beautiful tribute band were learning this number and preparing to unleash it with string quartet and horns and full harmonies.  It’s a tricky beast to learn but when we committed to it, it was and is glorious.  A mighty tune about disappointment, with oneself, with life, and everything.

Can’t find nothing I can put my heart and soul into…

I had the golden ticket but it was fake.  No film.  No money.  No explanation.

The American actors got paid – Mike Madsen, Harvey Keitel, Roy Scheider, Crispin Glover. The Screen Actors Guild deal protects actors from this kind of thing, which isn’t actually that rare sadly.  Equity, the British equivalent of SAG, is hopeless.  Since living in the USA I have found that the Unions here have far more power than their British counterparts.

Michael Wearing

I was told by Michael Wearing later as the phone calls became fewer that Casey and his wife had decided to take over, sack the entire crew and re-employ them on worse rates.  As a hotel builder,  which is what he did before becoming a “Film Producer”- sorry a little bit of sick just came into my mouth – this was his mode-d’emploi – sack the workforce and undercut their wages.  It might work in the building trade in Portugal but it wasn’t going to wash in the film industry.  Then they started hawking the film around to other co-producers but if you collapse a film half-way through without paying key personnel, you essentially own a debt.  Who wants to buy that ?  It was over and the hope dwindled week by week, like water wearing down a stone.  It was a tunnel with no light at the end.

But things could always be worse.  The designer, Chris, clearly had other issues.  He was involved in a messy divorce apparently, and within weeks of the film closing down he had set light to a set building in our base at Three Mill Island, fire brigade were called but it was destroyed.  He then shot and killed his son, and himself.  Tragic.

The rest of us just carried on living, a little more cynical, a little more beaten down, a little more angry inside, but we carried on.  Anyone working in the film industry – this business we call ‘show’ – has dozens of stories like this.  I have at least a dozen.  This one perhaps the worst.  I still feel bitter about it.   But it’s just a film after all.   And I’m still here.

London now from the top of Centrepoint

And somehow matching this beautiful sad song with this moment of devastation makes me feel a little more healed.  This is the power of music.  If anyone knows and practises the healing power of music it is the fragile genius of Brian Wilson.  This may be his best piece of work.   In 2011, Brian said: “It was like saying: ‘Either I’m too far ahead of my time’ or ‘I’m not up to my time.’ … [The feeling has] stayed the same … a little bit, in some ways not … [but now] I do feel I was made for these times.

My Pop Life #145 : Crazy In Love – Beyoncé

Crazy In Love   –   Beyoncé

May 2003.  I’m back from the Cannes Film Festival hobnobbing and bullshitting in a villa with the producers of Red Light Runners.  Director Nick Egan, Producer Michael Wearing and I fly back to London and have 3 more days talking in Claridges to thrash out some plot issues in the treatment I’ve successfully pitched.  We receive the important information that the money available for this project will not be there for long.    In other words, I have to write fast.  Jenny and I fy to LA and set up a writing room in our apartment, overlooking our landlord’s back garden one floor below.  In a reasonably concentrated mode I produce a screenplay and deliver it.  (see My Pop Life #144). Within days, it is greenlit and we are go.  It will shoot later in the summer – in a minute in other words !

Now the hustle begins.  Director Nick lives up the road in Beechwood Canyon, a few blocks from us in Los Feliz.  We have a couple of meetings, and a few drinks before he heads back to England for pre-production.  The first deal I secure is like a bonus :  Jenny and I are both cast, me playing Hancock, a Welsh forensics expert and Red Light Runner team member, Jenny playing Sharyce who opens the story and unwittingly becomes the first muslim suicide bomber on US soil since 9/11.

Offers are being made to actors.  Mike Madsen is already attached as Killian.   Harvey Keitel is offered MacNeill one of the CIA double-act but his people insist that he play the role of Sandy, the gay Fagin-esque priest (ex CIA).  I’d really seen Greg Kinnear in that role.   We’re shuffling now, Jina Jay is on board as casting director, it’s money v taste.  For once I’m behind the curtain looking out.  Sometimes in life things just fall into place. Yes !

Summer 2003 was Beyoncé’s.  The mighty single Crazy In Love was everywhere with it’s bouncy beyoncé pumping brass riff, salsa congas, uh-oh uh-oh uh-oh you know hook and ridiculous video showcasing Beyoncé’s dancing.  It was the first single off of her first solo LP and was widely anticipated since Destiny’s Child had been a huge hit in our house, and we’d followed them through various incarnations from Destiny’s Child (1998) through Writing On The Wall (1999) to Survivor (2001).  They were the biggest girl group since The Supremes, and Beyoncé was destined, as destiny’s actual child, for stardom.  The complete package – voice, face, eyes, body, moves.  Managed by her father Mathew Knowles for years her rise from Houston child star to global superstar has seemed inevitable, effortless and meant to be.  Inevitably, of course, things are never that simple. I wish.  But surely this was my time too at last ?

Beyoncé wrote Crazy In Love with Rich Harrison, who’d been saving up the cracking horn sample from The Chi-Lites 1970 song Are You My Woman (Tell Me So).  She was the first artist to respond to the blast of French Horn which creates that giant fanfare sound, and while she listened in her apartment, looking at her untidy hair and unmatched clothes in the mirror, singing I’m looking so crazy right now, they stumbled on the lyrics.  Beyoncé though, was actually crazy in love for real with her new boyfriend Jay-Z.  I know, none of us could believe it either.  But this was the moment when she and her new love were hot on fire and it was pouring out of her, a pure juice chilli shake, an eruption of love, and the result was as intoxicating as being a teenager again.  Yes !

Beyoncé and Shawn Carter (Jay-Z) in 2003

It’s hard to describe the feeling of that summer.  How quickly I got used to talking about other actor’s careers in a judgemental way, seeing them or not seeing them in certain parts.  My only IN to the process was via Nick and Michael since it was deemed from the other producers that I was not to be consulted.  But I was in there all right.  It felt like a rollercoaster ride, strapped in and ready to go, who will be the passengers?  Thrilling mainly.  For all the disappointments of my acting career (notably Seven and Speed), my first feature New Year’s Day, my 2nd screenplay High Times, my 2nd stage play The House That Crack built, now suddenly it had all seemed to come together, all the experience added up to being in the right place at the right time with the right people. There was vindication, excitement but lots of relief, because it appeared that I actually WAS who I thought I was.  The evidence had appeared scattered up to that point.

 The part of Spitzbergen, chief of the CIA, required an actor with cynical gravitas and an ability to be a switching predator.  We were thrilled to bits when the Chief of Police of Amity Island (the mythical beach town in Jaws) Roy Scheider accepted an offer. Crispin Glover, perhaps best known for his work on Back To The Future and River’s Edge is cast as Hammett and his side kick MacNeill goes to Rich Hall, an American comedian based in London.  The gallery was looking exciting.  Next to sign up were Cillian Murphy a young Irishman tipped for greatness, and Kate Ashfield a young brit ditto.  Then the casting started to get decidedly fizzy.  I’d come across fizzy casting when my film New Year’s Day was being made in 1999.  Fizzy casting is like pop stars, presenters, people with a different “audience”.  Can they act ?  Does it matter ?  Will the fizz last longer than an average glass of Coke ? Nobody worries about these questions.  The casting directors, who spend their spare time watching TV and going to the theatre now suddenly have to keep an eye on the charts and daytime TV.  Or Youtube ratings.  Whatever my private feelings about this as an actor, I had to acknowledge that we scored a good one with the casting of Tricky, erstwhile Bristol triphopper, as the getaway driver.  Names being bandied around included Vinnie Jones (who I’d already worked with in 2000 on Mean Machine), Gary Kemp (also an old buddy), Mickey Rourke (who wanted a brand new Land Rover among other things), Eddy Izzard, Chris Penn, Dennis Hopper.  It’s like top trumps actors all day long.

Beyoncé in 2003

The highlight for me was getting interest from Peter O’Toole to play the role of Baptiste, a mysterious highly moral character who meets Killian outside Salisbury Cathedral to discuss the Shroud of Turin.  We’re never sure who Baptiste works for, but he is both religious and a scientist.  One scene.  One conversation.  O’Toole wanted to talk rewrites on what he had read – so I had a call one morning from Mexico.  It was Peter.  He was concerned with the reality of his character’s words first, then with believability.  He was straight to the point.  It’s a complex scene and the plot changes as a result, one of those scenes that spins the film around, but he liked it and after 40 minutes on the phone with Lawrence Of Arabia, I hung up and crossed my fingers.  And then I went back to the computer.  The only time I’d seen him in the flesh was an infamous production of Macbeth at the Old Vic with Brian Blessed as Banquo, the worst reviews ever written and it sold out in minutes.   Later that day a rewritten scene was pinged off to Michael Wearing, the artistic producer, and thence to O’Toole’s agent.  A few days later Peter O’Toole was on board.  Yes !

I think we skipped around a bit that night.

Further rewrites came and went.  We went to see Tori Amos live at The Greek Theatre, a marvellous open-air venue in Griffith Park.  I think we walked there from our treetops apartment.  Ben Folds was in support.  Jenny’s sister Mandy came over for a holiday and stayed with us.  It was a glorious summer, sunbathing on the roof terrace with swallowtail butterflies flitting about, and others that resembled the Camberwell Beauty.

We did the touristy stuff, Venice, Malibu, Melrose and Santa Monica and went for a meal in Topanga Canyon at The Inn Of The Seventh Ray, sitting outside in the balmy California night air. We also did that great drive up Highway One from LA to San Fransisco, through Santa Barbara, The mental Madonna Inn, Carmel, Monterey, California at its finest… 

Madonna Inn, San Luis Obispo, California  

And we made plans to fly back to England for the shoot of Red Light Runners.  Jenny was offered a short series of The Vagina Monologues in the West End. She would take the last week off now that we had a schedule – her character worked in week five in Wiltshire and now everything was in place, the designer, the director of photography and his team, the editor, the costume designer, make up, locations were scouted, and the money and the cars and the P&A provided by Audi.  We had a ten million pound budget.  Huge for a British film.  We were shooting in London and Salisbury Plain (for the Iowa cornfields).  It was exciting yes, OF COURSE IT WAS EXCITING but I also felt ready.  Happy.  Yes.

Play That Tune !   Crazy right now.

My Pop Life #144 : Flowers In The Window – Travis

Flowers In The Window   –   Travis

It’s yet another song with seagull noises in it.  I’m collecting them.  One of the great things about living in Brighton is the quality of live music there.  The Brighton Beach Boys were formed after many a joyful Monday night in The Dragon in St George’s Road watching Stephen Wrigley and Adrian Marshall play 90 minutes of pop music, inviting punters to come to the mic and sing.  Drink + music = joy.  Once the band was up and running, gigging, rehearsing regularly I had the impertinent hubris to feel as if I could play in the pub too.

So I got a regular, or perhaps irregular Monday night gig in The Robin Hood on the border of Hove, a charity pub (Britain’s first!) with a benign and knowledgeable landlord in the form of Neil Hayward, brother to Paul, sports writer and Albion fan.  The BBBs had the residency and we took it in turns to play two-handers.  I played with Adrian Marshall himself on the bass and bvs, and when we went to look at a set-list there were a list of my favourite things I could already play :  Golden Lady, The Man With The Child In His Eyes, Julia, Sunny Afternoon and then a bunch of newer songs – it’s good to stay contemporary in the pub rock game.  So we chose this song by Travis, and Christina Aguilera’s Beautiful because I wanted to appear open-minded (and because I secretly loved it) and some Ben Folds and Todd Rundgren too.  In the end you’re just plonking away while people drink and chat, the living background music, but it is an honourable profession and I felt like I needed to do it for some inner compulsive reason.  I took to it pretty well, the amp broke down on the first gig and Ade took about 20 minutes fixing it.  I had no sustain pedal, and David Keys (thanks David) mentioned that it might be a good idea to get one.  Despite these handicaps I still enjoyed the gig in a nerve-wracked kind of way.   Flowers in the Window stayed in the set and we played it every gig, people loved it.  It was from the third LP by Travis, effortless pop brilliance from a Scottish four-piece gathered about the person of Fran Healy, songwriter and lead vocalist.

I’d bought the 2nd album The Man Who in 1999 with its gracious songwriting and harmonised easy pop  – Driftwood, Turn and the inescapable Why Does It Always Rain On Me?  There is a sweet jangly flow to their songs which sounds easy, but is rare in music, because it’s not as easy to write as it is to listen to.

The third album The Invisible Band came out in late 2001, with lead single Sing, but Flowers In The Window was in the charts as a single in April 2002.  I was playing it in the pub late in 2002 into early 2003.

Around this time we had a place in Los Feliz in LA, and went back and forth.    We’d found it through a contact of Gwen Wynne‘s.  It was the top floor of a rambling mansion at the bottom of beautiful Griffith Park, right on the corner of Western Avenue and Los Feliz Boulevard.  We were in the treetops, with squirrels, birds and magnificent butterflies as company.  Old school Los Angeles, wooden floors, tiled bathrooms, overgrown back garden that stretched back up the hill.  We could walk to the shops but we never did.  Our landlords, a lovely old Hollywood couple called Patrick and Alma Sexton, lived below us.  Patrick had Parkinsons Disease which caused mini-earthquakes to his left arm from time to time.  He also had a thin Clark Gable-esque white moustache on his top lip and a twinkle in his eye. He was the most charming cultured man.  Alma his wife was a naturalised Mexican, but you’d never know from superficial contact, only after she’d told us their story, and she was just a dear. We would walk down the stairs and hang out and talk with them from time to time, go out for meals now and again.  They would leave us a bottle of wine if we’d been away for a few weeks.  It was a dream house, expensive yes, but beautiful.  We had close friends Suzy Crowley and Tony Armatrading just down the road from us.  Convivial.  At that point we were essentially commuting between Brighton and LA.

Then early in 2003 Catherine Wearing‘s dad Michael asked me if I wanted to take a look at a rewrite on a project he was involved with producing.  Catherine was our friend from London days – us in Archway Rd, she in Finsbury Park and we stayed in touch regularly – she would come down to our Brighton parties, we would go up to hers for screenings of things she was producing for the BBC.  Michael Wearing had been a top producer at the Beeb since the late 70s and made his name with Edge Of Darkness and Boys From The Blackstuff, and carried on as Head of Series at the Beeb and Our Friends In The North.   He needed a writer, and bless her cotton socks, Catherine had suggested me.  I wasn’t brand new (don’t forget) – this was two years after New Year’s Day (see My Pop Life #75) was finally released (and seven years after it was written) and I’d also just finished writing a commissioned film about Howard Marks called High Times which despite being the finest screenplay I’ve ever created remains unmade.  And unpaid.  Another story.  So.  Michael and I had a meeting in London and he handed me a mess of a screenplay entitled Red Light Runners.  At its core was a brilliant film idea – but the script delivered nowt but cliches, risible dialogue and non-sequiturs.  I said I’d take a look.

The Groucho Club, 45 Dean St, London

A few weeks later I was sitting in a room at The Groucho Club pitching my version of the story to the producers: Michael, Nigel Warren-Green, Marcus Vinton and Mark O’Sullivan, and the director Nick Egan.  I was confident and, in retrospect, at 46 years old, at the top of my game.  Flowers In The Window.  I think it may have been peak Brown to be honest.  April 2003.  I had been a member of Groucho since 1989.  I’d just done a film in Morocco and Rome with Paul Schrader, my own band were learning Pet Sounds after being inspired by the Brian Wilson resurgence, my nephew Thomas Jules had just been in the charts with his pop band 3rd Edge.  Supergrass and Cate Blanchett lived down the road.   The music of 2002 had been all positive (no it wasn’t said Skippy) – Groove Armada, Justin Timberlake, Queens Of The Stone Age, Norah Jones, Flaming Lips, Electric Soft Parade, Common, N.E.R.D.   Live LPs from Ben Folds and Brian Wilson, the latter almost a miracle moment.  And I’d done my first TV show in Los Angeles in 2002 – The Agency for CBS, only one episode, but I felt that I existed on many planes of existence and that all was well.   Not all – that’s impossible, because I have bipolar disturbance which means that anxiety goes up and down, anger rages around then turns to depression, regardless of pubs and other distractions.  But if I’m working, I don’t usually have time to be depressed.  Futile perhaps, but not usually the full darkness.  This was as good as it gets.

Travis

I felt the meeting had gone well.  I’d come up with a decent new plot involving an ex-CIA gay Fagin-esque priest in London, a manhunt, and yardie gangs all circulating what was essentially a heist in the British Museum.  A phone call from Michael confirmed I was to rewrite the screenplay.  We agreed a fee and I was flown down to Cannes that May to meet Michael Madsen complete with black cowboy boots and cultivated ‘cousin-of-elvis’ image.  He was already cast as Killian.  And Michael Casey – the money.  The hype had started.  Talk of sponsors, money, meals, champagne, everything was free.  To those who can afford it of course.

Michael, Nick and I sat down and thrashed out some wrinkles together in Cannes and in London, and then it was down to me to produce something.

Looking down Western Avenue from Los Feliz Boulevard

Later that May Jenny and I flew to Los Angeles and I sat down in the Los Feliz treetops at the desk we had just bought and I wrote my version of Red Light Runners.  This often meant lighting up a spliff at 8 in the morning with my coffee – because I write best in the morning.  And in those days, I wrote best on spliff.  The spliff undoes knots in the plot, speeds things up a bit.  Unblocks the stupid fucking brain.  There was usually a sag, a dip, a plunge, a decline in the mid-afternoon, which is organic and natural, so we’d go out shopping or something, or sit on the sun terrace in the treetops then I’d get back on it at 6pm through to sundown or later.  On a fucking roll.  Such a great feeling when the top of your head becomes a huge funnel into which the universe is pouring itself, everything now and ever is grist to your particular subjective all-encompassing mill.  I’ve felt it about a dozen times in my life so far, and it is thrilling, fulfilling and magical.  WRITING.  I don’t actually know why I’ve carried on acting when the writing is so Right, but perhaps it will become clear.   At some point we had dinner on Sunset Strip with Dick Clement and Ian LaFrenais the British writing team who created The Likely Lads and Porridge among other gems.  They were introduced to us by Neil Morrissey who was in LA with his new girlfriend Emma Killick, talking to Dick and Ian about writing a film called Baker Street.   Dick Clement in particular was charming and twinkly, and shared this nugget with me, and he was serious : “Never tell the producers how long it takes you to rewrite a scene“.  I agreed with him.  We remembered (although neither of us were there) the old writing rooms in the Hollywood Studios in the 1940s when the writers had to sit at their desks from 9-5 every day churning it out.  So I won’t tell you how long it took me to write Red Light Runners.  And I won’t tell you how much I got as an advance either.  But I delivered the screenplay later that spring.  And it was, within months, greenlit. We were up and running.

And although my special talent in life is to find the worst in any situation, to be in-un-endingly half-empty, to seek out the meaningless darkness behind a beautiful sunset, I will resist that instinct for once and allow that moment to be perfect.   I think Flowers In The Window is probably the happiest song I know.   It’s so hard to be happy isn’t it ?

My Pop Life #143 : Step – Vampire Weekend

Step   –   Vampire Weekend

The gloves are off, the wisdom teeth are out, what you on about?

I feel it in my bones, I feel it in my bones

Change.  Everything is moving.   Movement.   Gravity holds us down but we’re spinning on our axis once every 24 hours and circling the sun once a year, and we’re growing older every week.

We give birth astride a grave, the light gleams for an instant, then it’s night once more

Samuel Beckett : Waiting For Godot

Not that I want to worry you or anything, but it flashes by doesn’t it?   Kids shoot up and start breeding, the World Cup in Germany was 10 years ago, I was 23 a few hours ago.

I always used to say “I’m in the middle of my life – c’mon!”to justify a holiday after a gig, to spend the money immediately by jetting off to the Caribbean – again.  But looking back – I was – we were – in the middle of our lives.  So this blog is partly an awareness of that, of time and people slipping away, of wanting to say the things I want to say to the people I want to hear it.  Not waiting until somebody passes for a ‘tribute’ – to Terry Wogan, David Bowie, Lemmy Kilmister, Glen Frey, Paul Kantner, Frank Finlay et al.  Let’s do a little tribute while we’re still alive, so we can hear it.  My tributes are to friends and family, and my musical turning points.  And here’s another.

Jenny Jules as Cassius in Julius Caesar, 2013

October 2013 Jenny my wife had been given an apartment in Brooklyn Heights for the duration of a Donmar all-female production of Julius Caesar which had transferred to St Ann’s Warehouse in DUMBO on the waterfront.  Down Under Manhattan Brooklyn Overpass.  An industrial area of warehouses and cobbled streets which has been gentrified up the wazoo and is now an expensive part of New York to live i.e. like everywhere else.  Brooklyn Heights is a fifteen minute walk south and up the slope, or you can connect via the waterfront of the East River.

Brookyn Heights promenade looking West at Manhattan

The views of downtown Manhattan from the elevated railings of Columbia Heights is second-to-none, and better than anything on Manhattan itself.  We were on Willow Street, one block east, opposite Truman Capote‘s old place.  Leafy, quiet, easy-going and maybe 200 years old or so, we fell in love.  We swooned.  We could live here, we said excitedly to each other, collecting garments from the Chinese dry cleaners on Henry Street, sitting in Montague Street Bagels, lunching in Dumbo Kitchen before a matinee.

Willow Street, Brooklyn

 Living on one floor of a classic New York brownstone townhouse with wood floors, tiled deco bathroom and giant fridge.  We recalled the early ’90s in King’s Road, West Hollywood.  America America !  the skies all seemed to say.  Once again. (see My Pop Life #130)

Modern Vampires of the City – Vampire Weekend 2013

I was doing self-tapes and meetings when I visited Jenny, and now New York suddenly seemed easy and attainable and exciting for both of us.   Lots of blue sky and Vampire Weekend on the stereo.   Their new LP was a masterpiece in my ears, taking all the lovely work from the first two albums and shaping something really outward-looking, really confident and solid, really rather brilliant.

2013 was a great year for music.  Kanye West came out with Yeezus which was the record of the year because parts of it sounded so unlike anything else, ever.  His raps were patchy though.  Yasmine Hamdan had a solo record which was terrific.  Sky Ferreira.  Savages.  Disclosure.  John Grant.  Chance The Rapper.  Rudimental.  Sigur Ros.  Queens Of The Stone Age.  Electric Soft Parade.  Run The Jewels.  Beyonce.  Drake.  Justin Timberlake.  J.Cole.  Haim.  Janelle Monae.   Take your pick.  Pretty astoundingly good amount of greatness, unusual.  I picked Vampire Weekend which still is my favourite record of 2013.

Vampire Weekend – 2008

Vampire Weekend were formed by Ezra Koenig and drummer Chris Tomson over a shared love of punk and hip hop while at ivy league Colombia University on New York’s Upper West Side, one of the very first educational establishments in America.  Later joined by bassist Chris Baio and keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij.  They started out as a college-rock art-school boys doing guitar-based African pop inspired rock – Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa, A-Punk, Oxford Comma are all bouncy upbeat unpretentious treats.  The 2nd album Contra (2010) was more of the same but the palette was broader and tinged with some melancholy – Cousins, Horchata.  By now the backlash had started – they were rich white kids appropriating African music.  This is so dull I won’t refute it in detail except to say that a) they’re not white – they’re Persian, Hungarian, Ukrainian, Italian;  b)  on scholarships and bank loans;  And that, c) furthermore, anyone can play whatever they like.  They are the freshest buds on a family tree that stretches back through New York time to Dirty Projectors, and before them to the mighty Talking Heads (see My Pop Life #92)

2013

The third LP – Modern Vampires of The City – was a major development of their palette while staying recognisably a Vampire Weekend LP :  world-music rhythms played as 21st century pop music from a city which is the crossroads of the world.  It sounds fresh, playful, clever, funny, melodic, rhythmically interesting and new.  Hybrid music.  The band have grown up lyrically.  There is some darkness creeping in.   Ariel Rechtsaid was brought in to co-produce with Rostam Batmanglij and sonically there are many innovations, pitch-shifting and other unusual ways of recording vocals and drums. It rewards repeated plays. It gets deeper and more interesting.

Step appears to be about girlfriend trouble and opens with the coda

“Everytime I see you in the world you always step to my girl”

which is a quote from a single by Souls Of Mischief called Step To My Girl (1992) which also opens with the line

“Back, back way back…”

and which is about girl trouble by a rap group from Oakland in California.

Actually Oakland and not Alameda

Vampire Weekend’s re-think of the song is a little trickier though, and many commentators have suggested that the girl in the song is actually their music, that people are possessive about their music, the music of their era, or that they write in the same way that people are possessive over lovers.   Ezra Koenig the lead vocalist and key songwriter and lyricist in the band has suggested that the song itself has a family tree, layers of versions of samples of references.

I won’t dissect the whole thing here, because I am unreasonably obsessed with this song, and there’s no need to inflict it on you, but there are some fun links :  Souls Of Mischief sampled YZ’s Who’s That Girl and Grover Washington Jr‘s cover of Aubrey by Bread.  If we’re slicing songs from David Gates (who is credited as a co-writer) and this song is about music, then….

Ancestors told me that their girl was better
She’s richer than Croesus, she’s tougher than leather 

I just ignore all the tales of her past life
Stale conversation deserves but a bread knife

Tougher Than Leather is an LP by Run DMC (1988).   And so on.  There are quotes from Talking Heads in there, references to growing old, to dying, to buying a house, wisdom teeth, truth, Anchorage, Mechanicsburg and Dar Es Salaam.  Oh and Angkor Watt.

It’s beautifully mysterious all the way through and I’ve had a lot of fun trying to unpick it, but perhaps it’s best left as a mystery anyway.   The video is a homage to New York City in black and white, reminiscent of Woody Allen’s Manhattan.  In 2013 it was like the pied piper calling me across the Atlantic, a beckoning finger, here, this is the place, right here.

Keyboard player and producer on all three of their LPs Rostam Batmanglij has just last week announced that he is leaving the band but would continue to work with them on forthcoming projects.  He also works with Carly Rae Jepsen, Kid Cudi and Charlie XCX among others.  It’s the end of an era.

Tonight marks exactly two years since Jenny and I moved to New York in February 2014, the day after Philip Seymour Hoffman died of a heroin overdose in his apartment in the West Village.   I worked with Phil in 2008 on a film called The Boat That Rocks.   Jenny and I flew over to New York with 2 suitcases and a cat each and after two nights in Harlem, moved down to Fort Greene in Brooklyn, the area where we still live today.

It was almost exactly three months after having a conversation together in Brooklyn Heights about starting over.

A new chapter, a fresh start.  We really didn’t take much convincing.