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.
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 ?