My Pop Life #174 : Learning To Be – Eleven

Learning To Be   –   Eleven

***

Slipping away I get closer each day I been looking for love to find me

Digging away I will search I will pray I been waiting for truth to blind me

Only perceive and the world will conceive there’s a seat in my heart that binds me  

awake in a dream I believe it’s extreme, ruling out that all this is magic…

“If you can meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two imposters both the same…”  said Rudyard Kipling in his incomparable poem “If…”.   Well I can’t.  I pretend I can, but no, I prefer the triumphs.  Is that what they’re called ?  Those goals into the top corner.  Those victories.  Yes, I prefer those imposters to the failures.  But people always say wise self-help guru stuff like “you learn more from your failures”  or “crisis and opportunity is the same word in Chinese”  or even “I get knocked down but I get up again”.  You know?   I prefer not to get knocked down at all.   I feel like my life was built on crises.  But still they come.

David Fincher

In 1994 I was living in Los Angeles.  It was David Fincher‘s idea.  He’d directed Alien 3 in 1991 and suggested that Jenny and I move to California.  “Come to LaLa” is actually what he said.  In 1992, after we’d got married and shot Undercover Blues in New Orleans which coincided with our honeymoon, (see My Pop Life #158) we rented an apartment in West Hollywood and stayed for three years.  David was very disappointed with Alien3 because the studio hadn’t accepted his cut, indeed had hacked the shit out of his cut, and after the glamorous premiere in LA and razzamatazz opening weekend fizz had died down, it was a film which didn’t knock everyone out, neither the public it seemed nor the critics.  David took it very badly – personally and professionally.  He spent the following two years silently fuming and plotting his revenge, and his next move.  We spent a lot of time together, round his apartment which at the time was on Beverley & La Brea with his new wife Donya Fiorentino, and Rachel his PA, her boyfriend Paul Carafotes, and David’s friends Chip & Carol, Ron, James, Marcie, and other friends.  We had a handful of friends already there – Anita Lewton from Moving Parts days (early 80s) was in Venice Beach, Suzy Crowley and Tony Armatrading were hanging out too.

Donya Fiorentino

We ate out a lot – on Sunset Strip, on La Brea, at Pane e Vino on Beverley.  We went to the movies together.  We got drunk.  We visited Lake Arrowhead one weekend and played pool and ate mushrooms.   We drove to Malibu.  Venice.  Went to gigs, clubs, parties.  We hung out in other words.

I got a gig on the film Wayne’s World 2 playing a roadie named Del Preston, and it was rushed out only a few months after it was finished (unusually).  David and Donya were round at our place on King’s Road when the LA Times review came out – it was great for me, and David said something along the lines of “I hope you remember me when you collect your Oscar“.  He wasn’t joking, he was feeling the pain of not working for two years.  Oh the irony !   Then one day some months later we were round his apartment off Beverley and he gave me a script, saying “there’s a great part in this for you Ralphie“.   It was a film called Seven.

Awake In A Dream by Eleven

There was an album that we listened to a lot that year called Awake In A Dream, by a group called Eleven, who were from LA.    A three-piece band writing intelligent glossy pop/rock with great melodies and unusual chord changes.  Their genesis was entwined with another LA band, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, and then later after Eleven split, Natasha Shneider played bass with Queens Of The Stone Age in their early days before sadly dying of cancer in 2008.  The other two band members were Alain Johannes (who also joined QOTSA in 2005) and Jack Irons.   Their first LP from which this song comes was released in 1991.   Two songs stood out – Learning To Be and Rainbow’s End… 

…Here at the rainbow’s end, there is no pot of gold, no matter what you’re told…

which was clearly a song about LA itself.   It was a sign.  An omen.

Me, Anita Lewton, Jen, Gary Kemp, Donya, David, Annie & Paul McGann

I’d always had a dream of Hollywood, and I’d never chased it, for fear I would fall flat on my face.  I’d been turned away from LA in 1989 on a trip across the USA in Auto Driveaway cars (see My Pop Life #147) getting as far as Phoenix on Christmas Eve before turning back to El Paso.  I’d always wanted Hollywood to ask me in, even in a small way, and in 1991 they did.   I had to shoot some extra Alien3 scenes and Fox paid for Pete Postlethwaite and I to travel to Culver City in LA (for another story).  I’d got an agent, got a job, got an apartment, and now a few years later I’d got the massive opportunity that eventually comes around.

 1994 was a watershed year for me, looking back.  After that incredible review in the LA Times I did not work for a whole year.  “Kim Basinger is fantastic and Christopher Walken marvellous, but walking away with the whole picture is Ralph Brown as Del Preston” is what it said.  It was the kiss of death of course.   I was going up for three films per week.  Everything that was made in 1994, I auditioned for.  Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead.  The Usual Suspects.  Crimson Tide.  Devil In A Blue Dress.  Heat.  Jumanji.   True Romance.  The Quick & The Dead.  And many many others lost to the mists of time.  Learning lines, forming character, turning up with well-chosen clothing and delivering the scene, over and over and over.  Fincher helping me with auditions sometimes (True Romance – offered to Christopher Walken).   Meeting after meeting.  No.  No.  No.  No.  No.  No.  No.  No.  No.  And No.   I’d hit the glass ceiling.  Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken were getting the gigs.  My gigs.  How could I break through that invisible barrier ?

In June the World Cup gave us some welcome respite.  We got tickets for all the Rose Bowl games in Pasadena, just by sending off for them – an advert in the LA Times, and a country that wasn’t interested, bar the foreigners, the Latinos, Africans and Europeans.  We decided to support Cameroon in an early game v Sweden and met Ashley Joyce (English) and Jeremy Thomas (Welsh, just separated from Drew Barrymore after two months of marriage) who ran The Room a groovy bar just off Hollywood Boulevard.  They are still friends of mine.

The Rose Bowl, Pasadena, 1994 World Cup Final 

The month that followed was glorious – wall to wall football, no England to disappoint us (we didn’t qualify) – over 100 degree heat for a Colombia v USA game, a July 4th game USA v Brazil in San José, a quarter final in Pasadena Romania v Sweden, a semi-final Brazil v Sweden and tickets to the actual final Brazil v Italy, a 0-0 draw, and Roberto Baggio blasting his penalty over the bar, cue Brazilian Carnivale, and meeting my old friend Stephen Woolley from Scala Cinema days and The Crying Game outside the stadium after the Final – in town doing screenings for test audiences of Interview With A Vampire.  “That’s no way to make a film” I said.  “Asking the audience which characters they prefer”  “When you’re spending 40 million dollars, it’s the only way to make a film”  he replied.  I was so green, really, so innocent.  But I was certainly living life.   Learning To Be.

Roberto Baggio has just missed a penalty at the World Cup Final

The best game was Romania 3 Argentina 2 after Maradona had been sent home for drug abuse and Hagi’s sweet left foot sent the East Europeans through to the quarter finals.   I think Germany were beaten by Bulgaria, who in turn lost to Italy.  Klinsmann was playing, Roger Milla, Alexi Lalas, Stoichkov, Romario.  We particularly enjoyed watching games on TV with absurd, nay, surreal commentary from US commentators deciphering a game they scarcely understood:  “The ball has crossed the end line” or “great touch by the goal-handler“.  Or the Latin American channels with the hyperbole of the gods :

GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAALLLLL!!!!

We had a laugh.    Then as summer turned to late summer and even later summer (you don’t really get winter in Los Angeles) – our thoughts turned to work and I carried on getting NO from meetings.  They’ve gone another way.  They loved you but it’s not going to work out this time.  Or even worse : silence.  The dwindling hope that finally extinguishes.  And then David gave me the script for Seven.   I read it – and as I’m sure you know dear reader, it was dark and clever.  My character was called John Doe.   David assured me that he wanted me to play it.   It was my gig.  This was great news.   I hadn’t worked for almost a year and was a) going slightly mental, and b) running out of money.   David then called one afternoon and said the producer would like to meet me on Thursday.  Would I mind reading?  “Course not”  I said, “no problem”.   I prepared the scenes in my own accent and also in an American accent.  I’d had an accent coach since one of the films I’d gone up for (The Ice Cream Story) had insisted on me reading again and again ( I went in 3 times and still didn’t get it).  My accent coach told me that my accent was perfect – nailed on.  But the director was nervous, and was projecting his nerves onto me.   I rationalised bitterly.

Wilshire and Fairfax in LA

So Thursday rolls around and I sit in that old space-age diner Johnie’s just above Wilshire Boulevard on Fairfax while I wait for the meeting across the road.   Then I cross Wilshire and go in.  David greets me all smiles like an old friend – he is an old friend.  Introduces me to the producer who in my memory was Arnie Kopelson.  The casting director was there too I think, Billy Hopkins who since Alien3 which he’d cast with Priscilla John had got me in for loads of things, including Speed which is for another post.  Maybe he wasn’t.  But there were a few people there watching me, and I immediately felt uncomfortable.  Like I was on the spot.  I suddenly realised that I had to make David look good.  We did some small talk then someone suggested we read.  There was probably someone there to read the off-lines.  I was shit.  My accent was terrible.  I apologised.  David smiled “It’s cool dude, just do your thing”  I tried it again.  I was shit again.  “Just use your own accent Ralphie” said Fincher, “Just do what you do“.    He was so kind and supportive.  I was in pieces. It was excruciating.

Sometimes I think that eternity blinks paying no due respect to logic

I’ve thought about this moment many times, and I don’t know why I didn’t seize it.  His dream must have seemed so close that he could scarcely fail to grasp it.  He could not know that it was already behind him…wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald…The Great Gatsby’s final paragraph.

I didn’t get the job.  Kevin Spacey did.  He smashed it.  He took a few jobs off me that year.  It was his year.  And the following year certainly was too.  We ended 1994 with one BBC job in Italy and nothing in Hollywood, broke.  We decided to move back to England, but not before I’d written a movie called New Year’s Day which would eventually get made in 1999 (see My Pop Life #75) and which is about – ouch – The Importance Of Disappointment.

..Give me your hand we are part of this plan we can force all this chaos to rhyme…

At some point during the post-production for Seven or Se7en as it was then written, David and Donya separated.  This was painful for everyone, and Jenny and I attempted our usual even-handed response to these painful events and stayed in touch with both parties.  David didn’t like that, or perhaps Donya used us against him in an argument.  In any event I have hardly seen him since 1995.   No bad feeling, just the end of an era.

Donya’s photograph of my wife Jenny Jules, 1994

It was an incredible opportunity in retrospect.  If I’d been cast in that role, it would certainly have changed my career.  I absolutely under-anticipated the stress of that meeting, thinking in my foolishness that David holding the door open would be perhaps enough to swing it for me.   It was a harsh lesson.   Many times I have played it over in my mind, re-entered the room, better prepared, psyched-up, played the scene properly like I’d planned it.  (Spacey played it exactly as I’d rehearsed it in the finished movie).   But I didn’t get it.  Even today, writing this, it bites me.  It was a gift horse and I gave it a thorough dental examination.   Oh well.  I’m still here.  Some things are just not meant to be.  No regrets.  Learning To Be.

Like all hinge moments one cannot eventually regret the way it went.  If I’d been cast in Seven we would have stayed in LA.  Or at least I would.  First and biggest problem.  We wouldn’t have bought a house in Brighton.  Tom, Millie and Lucy wouldn’t have moved down.   Scarlett and Tom wouldn’t have met.  Skye wouldn’t have been born.  I wouldn’t have played in The Brighton Beach Boys.  And on and on.  You cannot unmake a moment, even in your wishes.  And thus, once again, writing out one of my haunted moments in a blog post has allowed to me to understand the wound and clarify the misty darkness which surrounds it a little bit more.   And it becomes not a defeat but just another chapter in My Pop Life.

Look in the eyes of the water that falls
Hiding behind every flower and rock
Why do we dance on the wheel and forget
Life is a child that will never regret
Learning to be, be, be
Stepping away, I get closer each day
I’ve been looking for love to find me
Digging away, I will search I will pray
I’ve been waiting for truth to blind me

Learning To Be :

and Rainbow’s End – it’s not a great quality video, but it’s all there is :

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My Pop Life #173 : Como Fue – Benny Moré

Como Fue   –   Benny Moré

Fueron tus manos o tu boca
fueron tus ojos o tu voz
o a lo mejor la impaciencia
de tanto esperar tu llegada
Mas no sé
no sé decirte como fue
no sé explicarme que pasó
pero de ti me enamoré
*
Was it your hands or your lips,
Was it your eyes or your voice,
maybe it was impatience
after waiting so long
for you to arrive.
I don’t know anymore,
I can’t tell you how it was,
I can’t explain what happened,
but I fell in love with you.
Cuba, 1953.   Benny Moré is singing with Ernesto Duarte Brito‘s Orchestre for Radio Progreso in Havana, eager to capitlise on the new batanga craze in the nightclubs and on the radio.  Benny is to sing the lead vocal on a new bolero entitled Como Fue (how it was).   In his heart he is longing to have his own band, his own orchestre, hiring the musicians, the backing singers, choosing the material and recording his own arrangements.  The following year all that would happen.  But he is already a star in Cuba.   Benny, born Bartolo, was the oldest of 18 children from Santa Isabel de las Lajas, in Pueblo Nuevo province;  his parents moved and he was raised in Camaguey and learned to play guitar and tres while working in his mother’s laundry.  Eventually he arrived in Havana, by now singing second vocal in small busking bands.  The great Cuban bandleader and songwriter Miguel Matamoros heard him singing and in 1945 he was asked to join the famous Trio Matamoros group, who’d been making hits since 1928.   Like many before him he trod the familiar path of success to Mexico where he was convinced to change his name to Benny (Bartolo is a donkey’s name in Mexico). Benny meets the great Perez Prado, el Rey de Mambo another Cuban playing in Mexico and recording for RCA Victor.  They cut a number of classic sides together before Benny Moré, now known as El Bararo del Ritmo, returned to Havana, homesick, in 1950.
And he continues to cut hit after hit after hit, all in different styles – cha-cha-cha, bolero, son, mambo, guaracha, batanga, rhumba.  His voice is sweet and masculine, expressive and lyrical.  The music is wonderful, and now he writes his own songs too.  In the 1950s Cuba was in the midst of a civil war, Fidel Castro had returned from exile in Mexico with Che Guevara alongside him and together they led a revolution which led to Fidel being named El Presidente in 1959.  He was still El Presidente when Jenny and I visited Cuba in late 1999/2000 for the new year holiday some 40 years later.  We were tired of the eternal build-up to The Millenium, and thought we’d escape the hype for a few weeks.
I’d been working for Channel 4 on a 6-episode series spin-off from the movie called Lock Stock and… playing an East End wide boy gangster called Miami Vice with shaved head and Bow Bells accent.  This was only a handful of years since I’d worked with the late great Warren Clarke in A Respectable Trade (see my Pop Life #122 ) and he’d advised me how to negotiate a deal (the only actor to ever share this kind of information with me).   I auditioned for the fabulous Sheree Folkson, got an offer and asked the agent (lovely Fiona M at ICM) for double what they’d offered.  She scoffed in disbelief at my chutzpah : “Well you’ll never get that Ralph“.  I responded with the best possible response :  “I won’t be doing the show then, no skin off my nose.”  She was furious, but a week later I got what I was asking for.  You have to know your worth, and god bless him, Warren Clarke taught me that.
Benny Moré
So we could afford to fly to Havana.  We flew Air France, and I Will Never Fly With Air France Again.  EVER.  We flew to Paris and missed the connection to Havana because they didn’t announce it in the lounge.  We were put up in a hotel at Orly airport, flown to Madrid the following day and put up again at an airport hotel.  Now given money to buy underwear and other essentials we eventually arrived in Havana three days after leaving the UK, and with all our bags having been lost en route.  It meant we had to take a taxi to the airport EVERY DAY to see if our bags had turned up.  One by one they came in, but one bag never did appear.  Things.  Just stuff right.  But wait.
We hook up with Carlos y Manolo, a gay couple who worked in the theatre and travelled internationally with their productions, representing the art of Cuba abroad, all sanctioned and paid for by the government.  They’d met Miriam Ryle my long-time ex-girlfriend from the 70s and she’d passed us their number.
They were kind of bourgeois for Cuba but they had no money. None.  But Manolo still bought us a bottle of rum very early on which cost him a week’s wages, and then took us shopping to buy some clothes since ours hadn’t arrived yet. We spent most of the holiday in their company, drinking with their friends, eating at their Auntie’s paladar (house restaurant) on New Year’s Eve with John Singleton and his partner, who were also staying at the hotel Isabel in the old town.   He said that Jenny looked like his Aunty Jessie.  We took that as a compliment.  It was that kind of night : but that night is for another post, because it went on all night, dancing to Celia Cruz and Whitney Houston.
Havana, Cuba
This blog is about how it was.  Como fue.   We moved out of the hotel into a room in Manolo’s uncle’s apartment in a different neighbourhood where there were no tourists. We fancied the experience of living with Cubans.  What an amazing city Havana is.  Like an old lady who was stunningly beautiful when she was young, there is a kind of eternal charm and grandeur about the architecture and wide boulevards, the 1950s taxis, the sexy locals, the mix, the music, the Caribbean, the parties.
We met Amanda Oom‘s friend Gregor who had a photographic exhibition in Havana and whom we’ve since met many times in England and in Stockholm.  He is now partnered up with lovely Petronella from Norway.   I wrote about the magic effect of Ooms in My Pop Life #14   .
But look – we’re talking about a city which has Che Guevara as an official heroic figure. The ironies are profound.  Havana has two distinct economies – local, and tourist.  At one ice-cream shop I was charged the local price – about 2p – for two ice-creams, because they thought that Jenny was cubana and that I had bought her.  Christ that was revealing and horrifying.  But there was more to come.
Havana streets
At some point in the first week of 2000AD we had a phone call from Jen’s sister Lucy to call her back.  She was looking after our house in Brighton.  We’d been burgled.  Someone had broken in and stolen loads of our stuff.   She was shocked, and so were we.   Jenny wanted to go back immediately, break the holiday – we were due to travel south to Santiago and other parts of the country – I wanted to finish the holiday.  We hadn’t been to The Tropicana yet to see the big band.  Jenny explained that Lucy needed to see us and be relieved of her horror, and insurance had to be dealt with and all that.  Stuff was missing : stereos, TV, carpets, hundreds of CDs, jewellery from upstairs.   We changed our return flight with wonderful Air France and on our last full day in Havana decided to visit the church Our Lady Of Regla which was a ferry ride across the harbour.
On the ferry, which was rickety and ‘full of character’  we noticed a woman standing by the side of the moving boat muttering as if in prayer.  She looked pretty intense but in her own world, then she started to break up pieces of coconut and drop them into the water.  Jenny whispered to me : “She is blessing our crossing“.
Regla, a mainly poor and black neighbourhood.  No tourists here.  Although it was in the book, so now I imagine it’s swamped.  But that afternoon it was just us at the old 17th century church with a black madonna and child above the altar.   And a history of santeria, the religion of the Yoruba transferred to the Caribbean and merged with Catholicism.   The black Madonna itself has a curious and fascinating history.
St Augustine of Hippo & his mother St Monica on a stained-glass window in Washington D.C.
Saint Augustine is said to have had a vision instructing him to erect a statue of a black virgin Mary, and he did so in Hippo, (present-day Annaba in Algeria) in 415AD.  When Vandals attacked Hippo 30 years after Augustine’s death, monks lifted the statue and fled. The black Madonna appears most famously in Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain, and in Monserrat near Barcelona, but interestingly she also occurs in Poland, France, Germany, Romania, Kosovo, Serbia and Russia, and in Orthodox Churches as well as Catholic;  in Prague, in Brazil, in Chile and in Havana.
the black madonna of Czestochowska, Poland
They mainly date from the Byzantine era (say 14th century), but not exclusively.  What they represent, apart from the obvious, is unknown, thus a pile of speculative and conjectural literature has emerged to further enlighten us.  We just sat there in the front pew and soaked it all in.  The holiday was over.  We’d been robbed.  We were still rich tourists in an incredible communist nation which had first-class healthcare, but no freedom to travel.  Our friends hated Castro but were proud of being Cuban.  And we’d had an amazing time.
Our Lady Of Regla
And then the woman from the ferry came up the aisle of the church and kneeled just in front of us to pray at the altar, to the black virgin.  That was when we noticed her shoes –  because she was kneeling we could see the bottom of her shoes.   And carved into the soles of her shoes were words in English.  They said :
TO HAVE, OR NOT TO HAVE
I kid you not.  It was for us, clearly.  We looked at each other and squeezed hands.  The universe works in mysterious ways.  The intellectual part of my brain immediately connected this with the Ernest Hemingway book To Have Or Have Not written in 1937 which concerns a contraband smuggler working between Key West and Havana,  later filmed with Humphrey Bogart & Lauren Bacall and set in Martinique.  The non-intellectual part of my brain could only wonder what on earth was going on, because a profoundly strange thing had just occurred.   To have, or not to have.  Right there in front of us, in English, carved into the rubber soles of her shoes.  I can’t remember if I took a photograph or not.  We were stunned.
I asked the woman if she knew that she had English on her shoes but she didn’t speak English and didn’t want to discuss it at all.
We got back onto the ferry and crossed the harbour.  Went to the centre of Havana and found a music shop,  asking in halting Spanish for the best Cuban music, please.  The man produces a CD for me called 20 Boleros De Oro by Beny Moré.  20 Golden Greats.  Benny only has one N in Cuba.  This is the best he confirms.  I buy it, along with some other vintage music from Trio Matamoros and Arsenio Rodriguez, and some more up-to-date stuff by Los Van Van.
The following day we say our goodbyes to Carlos and Manolo and vow to return, which we never have.  We’ve seen them in the UK since then, and handed their number out to all of our friends who’ve visited Havana.  This year relations with the USA thawed mightily and tourism was pumped up.  People can visit their families in Florida.  Castro is no longer El Presidente but his revolution is still alive, just.
Benny Moré died in 1963, singing to the last, coughing blood but determined to fulfill his obligations.  He was 44 years old.  He left behind an incredible body of work which has massively dominated Cuban music in all its complexity and richness.  See Buena Vista Social Club, and watch Ibrahim Ferrer singing Como Fué  below.  He was a huge natural talent, and his music reaches across the language barrier, the cultural divide, the intellectual codification.  You could do worse than seek it out for yourself.
We flew back to Heathrow from Paris, and Air France once again lose one of our bags.  We arrive back to a house which has been emptied of it’s STUFF, but it is still our house.  I cannot explain fully, how it was.
 como fue, no se dicerte, como fue
the song :
Benny Moré sings Como Fue live : 
Ibrahim Ferrer singing Como Fué with Ruben Gonzalez on piano :
rare footage of Benny Moré conducting his band 1950s, Havana :

My Pop Life #172 : In My Chair – Status Quo

In My Chair   –   Status Quo

I saw her talking, now
My ears were burning
Her feet started walking, now
They started turning
My eyes were half open
But she didn’t see me there
We ran along, walking ‘cross the roof-tops
In my chair

I was working in Bude, Cornwall on Julia Davis’ series Nighty Night when I got the offer. Did I want to play Status Quo‘s road manager Barney in 3 episodes of Coronation Street to mark the 45th anniversary of Britain’s longest-running soap ?   Who’s gonna say no to that??   These are the moments in an actor’s life which really lift the spirit.  Straight offer.  No audition.  Working with a band I’d loved since I was knee-high to a wotsit.   Iconic.

Press play

And on a TV show with it’s sensational trumpet theme tune which had been with us all the way – a host of characters who were real – Ena Sharples, Hilda Ogden, Albert Tatlock, Elsie Tanner, Rita Fairclough, Ken and Dierdre, Vera Duckworth, played by actors who were even more real.  Reminding all of us soft southerners that this country of ours had a north, who spoke differently.  Working class people on TV.  And it was comedy too, unlike Eastenders the slit-your-wrists southern soap.  The combination of Status Quo and Coronation Street was earthy and righteous.   I said yes there and then, and a few days later the scripts arrived.  One of the things people always ask me when I get a job and I’m shooting some programme or film is this : “When is it coming out ?

Which is one thing I never ever know.  Some time next year, when it’s all edited and got a soundtrack and some PR behind it and blah blah blah.  But this was the one exception.  Coronation Street scripts come with the TX, or transmission date printed in capitals at the top of page one.  When’s it coming out ?  September 21st 2005.

I’d had hair extensions added for Nighty Night because I was playing a new-age sex therapist who was a bit of a twat (enjoyed that role very much and both Julia Davis and Rebecca Front (and the rest of the cast – truly blessed we were) are genius but that’s for another post) – so I kept the long hair for Corrie since I felt in my bone of bones that the old fella Danny the Dealer from Withnail and I would get another outing.  Withnail was shot in 1985 – then in the mid 90s I’d filmed Wayne’s World 2 and played another rock’n’roll character called Del Preston (for another post too!) and he had spoken with the rhotic ‘R’ sound & stoned delivery of Danny from Withnail, after I’d called writer and director of Withnail Bruce Robinson and asked him if he thought it was OK (it’s your character Ralph, do as you feel).   I felt that I would wheel him out once more, perhaps for the final time – indeed I haven’t played that character since then, but hey never say never.  There are people who wonder why I didn’t make a career out of that geezer, (I did : Ed) but I’ve always felt rather protective of him and kept his powder dry.    Coronation St with the Quo though felt completely right, so it was dangly ear-rings, maroon waistcoat, jeans, cowboy boots, a floppy yellow hat and permanently stoned gaze.

EXT. The Rover’s Return – day

My first scene was in The Rover’s Return, the legendary pub on the Corrie set, which nestles in the centre of Granada TV in the heart of Manchester.  Of course the exterior is in The Street while the interior set in inside a studio.  Obvious but there you go.   I’d met the band briefly before we went on set, invited to their dressing rooms (one each for Rick and Francis) and said hi – they were both very easy-going and normal and friendly -unsurprisingly because their image was of down-to-earth-fellas, because that is who they are.  Like me I hope.  And then we were in the pub – initially me at the bar and them in a booth.  Next to me at the bar was Jack Duckworth.

Julie Goodyear (Bet Lynch), Liz Dawn (Vera Duckworth) and Bill Tarmey (Jack Duckworth) in the pub in Coronation Street

If you’ve never seen the show it’s not easy to explain who this person is.  He’d been an extra on the show for ten years, playing darts in the background of The Rovers before becoming a regular character in the early 80s some 25 years earlier.  He was, in short, a fixture on the show, and on that particular set.  He spoke with a viscous throaty Manc growl, full of beer and fags and character, a kind of gloomy town crier that you used to be able to find at the bar in every pub in England.  In the scene he had to ask Barney who those geezers in the corner were, and I had to sing a section of Rockin’ All Over The World which he wouldn’t recognise, at which point I say “The Quo man?  Status Quo”  and carry the beers back to the lads.  It was fun.

Rick Parfitt, Francis Rossi : the stars of Status Quo

After four or five takes they stopped to fiddle with a lamp and Bill Tarmey – or Jack – turned to me and said, with all sincerity :

“Ralph lad, you’re doing very well. Very well.  I’ve had top actors in here, A-listers stand at this bar and I’m telling you lad, their knees have gone”

Christ it was funny.  I wondered who he was talking about – Ian McKellen? Ben Kingsley? – and carried the beers back to Francis and Rick, and we had a sup and they called cut.  Rick Parfitt and I lit up a Benson & Hedges each.  A runner ranneth over, doing his job (running).  “Sorry you can’t smoke on set gentlemen you’ll have to go outside“.  We looked over at Jack Duckworth who was perched, nay, carved into the bar with an Old Holborn roll-up permanently tucked and smouldering inside his hand.  “Jack’s smoking” I said.  The runner assumed an air of private suffering.  “That’s Jack though”  he smiled weakly.  Rick and I looked at each other, made a decision to say nothing and walked outside for a quick puff.

Francis Rossi had formed a band with Alan Lancaster at Catford High School in 1962 who evolved into Status Quo, adding Rick Parfitt in 1967,  Andy Bown in 1977, and John Rhino Edwards who replaced Alan Lancaster on bass in 1985, all of whom are in the current line-up and present on set in Manchester.    Quo have had over 60 chart hits in the UK and specialised, since 1969, in denim-clad 12-bar boogie.

Status Quo in 1970 when they released ‘In My Chair’ as a single

Their peak era was the mid 1970s, with a run of hits including Softer Ride and Down Down just as I and my friends from school Conrad, Tat, Andy Shand and Tigger were forming our own band called Rough Justice based in Kingston nr Lewes.   We wrote our own material, but also played a nice wedge of covers – two by The Beatles (Birthday and Get Back), two by Elvis Presley (Heartbreak Hotel and Jailhouse Rock – see My Pop Life #80) and THREE by Status Quo :  Paper Plane, Caroline and this song In My Chair.   In My Chair is a very low-temperature boogie with delightfully surreal lyrics and a terrific old school guitar solo, and if it got any slower it would slowly slide off the sofa and fall asleep on the floor, yes, but it’s also a tune.  My favourite Quo song along with Gerdundula, which was actually the B-side on Pye Records.  (Francis Rossi had later told me that Gerdundula was written for a German couple they knew in the late 60s called Gerd und Ula.  So now you know 😉   Rough Justice loved the Quo, but we also found these songs relatively easy to play – 12-bar songs with a rhythm guitar part (Conrad playing Parfitt) and a lead part (Tat playing Rossi).   I would then sing the relatively undemanding nasal lead vocal (Ralph singing Rossi).   Although as I recall I played bass on Caroline (three whole notes!!) and Andy Shand sang the lead vocal.  People could dance to them too.  Of course I told the Quo all this, and they were pleased.   They were pleased to be in Coronation Street, with lines, acting, thrilled to bits to be honest.  Which was very sweet.  I asked them who they liked and they said Jeff Lynne of ELO and Hank Marvin, guitarist with The Shadows.  Rick had sat next to Hank at some variety TV show where the audience is filled with celebrities, and told us that he’d spent some of the time looking down at Hank Marvin’s  right hand, thinking – that hand played those licks!  They were lovely fellas all right and they made me feel very welcome.

I appear to be happier than The Quo

Later that night Rick and I had a few too many in the hotel bar and Rick actually fell into a glass table covered in drinks, causing mayhem, spillage and jokes.   Kind of gratifying.   We ran along walking across the rooftops in my chair.   Three weeks later we would return to Manchester for the following episode.  Now read on dot dot dot.

Jack Duckworth, the character, passed away in 2010 asleep in his chair.  Millions mourned. He was the 2nd-longest serving male character on the show – over 30 years.  Two years and one day later Bill Tarmey the actor passed away in Tenerife at the age of 71, of a heart attack.  We mourned all over again.  Here’s to you Bill.

Late note : as I was writing this blog, Rick Parfitt was suffering a massive heart attack. Thankfully he lived and is now in recovery, on the mend.  My thoughts are with him.

In My Chair from 1971 :

clearer visuals :

the B-side Gerdundula played live in 2004

My Pop Life #171 : Praying For Time – George Michael

Praying For Time   –   George Michael

I may have too much but I’ll take my chances
Because god’s stopped keeping score…

Listen Without Prejudice was released in September 1990 and this was the first single from the album.  We listened to the LP all that winter 90/91, and I don’t think George Michael has ever bettered it.  Cowboys & Angels, Freedom 90, Heal The Pain, lovely cover of They Won’t Go When I Go.  And Praying For Time.  “tune”

Listen Without Prejudice – 1990

That autumn I was doing a play called Earwig by Paula Milne at The Pit, somewhere under The Barbican in London with the RSC.  Then I got a call from the agent for a meeting in Pinewood studios for Alien 3.  This was terribly exciting.  I adored the first Alien film, and was less keen on the second, but devoured it hungrily nonetheless.  The combination of horror and science fiction was thrilling and brilliantly done.  I gleaned a few details before the meeting – it was going to be set on a prison planet with no women except Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver.  It would directed by a young first-time director called David Fincher.   Much to the irritation of the RSC I had my (pretty long) hair shorn at Fish in D’Arblay Street – a number four if I recall.  I’d been going to Fish since I’d done West at The Donmar Warehouse in 1983, and they’d been close-up witnesses to the disappearing head-fur since then.  Anyway, I got offered the part of Aaron, or to be more accurate, Fincher recalled me and asked me which part I fancied playing.  HOW COMPLETELY THRILLING !!  (I thought)  IS THIS WHAT MY LIFE WILL BE LIKE NOW???  I chose Aaron.  The 2nd in command.  The survivor.  Good part.  Or so I thought. This is an extract from my diary at the time – an actor at his first Hollywood barbeque, getting burned.  Nobody explains what it’s going to be like, and even if they did, I didn’t listen.  Who does ?

*

Alien 3 – Paranoia in Pinewood

The six stages of Film Production : as seen carved into the wall in Pinewood, Studio Five, by someone presumably better-versed in the industry than I :

  1. Wild enthusiasm
  2. Disillusionment
  3. Panic
  4. Search For The Guilty
  5. Punish The Innocent
  6. Reward The Non-Involved 

 

17th Jan 1991.

Well.  After a heavy day’s filming on Scene 55 where Golic, (played by me old china plate  Paul McGann), is brought to the infirmary, I return to my dressing room to find rewrites have been pushed under my door.  Rewrites for the end of the movie.  I read them.  Disaster.  My character has gone from the everyman-yuppie-type-who-survives to something completely different : the thick-coward-type-who-gets-his-throat-cut-while-hiding-from-the-alien.   I feel like a horse has kicked me in the guts.  I march up to the director, David Fincher’s office, and demand a meeting with the writers, Walter Hill and David Giler, to discuss the part.  Having already filmed two scenes and therefore committed my character to celluloid, these changes are un-nerving to say the very least.  Fincher says he hates the rewrites, and don’t worry, it’ll be all right.  But he’s just the director.  Walter and David are also producing along with Sigourney herself.  I express with great and foolish bravery to Fincher that I need to know what I’m playing, and I need to know NOW.  We arrange a meeting for lunchtime next day.

18th Jan

At 11.am I get a call cancelling the meeting.  Panic.  I call my agent Michael Foster, the poison dwarf of Oxford Street whom I love dearly.  His advice : Don’t rock the boat, keep your head below the parapet, wear a tie and vote conservative (remember, this is 1991).  Above all, he advises, Do Not Upset Walter Hill, writer and producer of the film.  There are major Hollywood politics going on and I’m simply caught in the crossfire, my character being one pawn among many in a power game between the Giler/Hill axis and the Fincher/Fox camp.  It’s the moody stark Alien (1) vs the populist wham-bam Aliens (2).  I know what I prefer but evidently can’t afford to express my feeling to the wrong people.

At 2pm I get a call inviting me (since I’m not filming today) to the Halcyon Hotel in Holland Park – a car will be round to pick me up.  This is where Walter Hill and David Giler are staying.  The drive is smooth and tense. I go up in the lift to Room 50, and Walter greets me at the door wearing mirror shades.

Walter Hill, director of The Long Riders, 48 Hours, The Warriors, The Driver and more

By now I am shitting maisonettes but staying outwardly cool I hope.  Something to drink Ralph ?  I ask for tea, so we all have tea.  We chat, and Fincher is mentioned.  Non-committal words are exchanged.  Body language is tense, nervy from Hill, open, receptive from me.  I smile in what I hope is a relaxed fashion.  I’m wrong about one thing (probably more than one – Ed) – Walter Hill talks about going back to the simplicity of the first Alien movie, which cheers me up a bit.  So, Ralph, what about Aaron?  Well, I say, I’m here to ask for your help.  Hill doesn’t believe me.  Careful Ralph.  Be careful.  Be honest.  I talk about Fincher’s version of the character and how it conflicts with the rewrites. Hill shifts his weight and considers me.  “Aaron is a working class stupid guy, who is funny“.   I agree.  This is my bargaining position I say : I have no bargaining position.  Hill laughs.  He knows.    Is there anything I don’t like about the script?  Well, I say, can’t Aaron fight with the Alien??  If not at the end, then in the middle sequence with the fire? Astonishingly they agree with me and I gain a point.  But I can’t fight at the end.  And I have to be an 85 IQ – like Muhammed Ali or Danny from Withnail (they bizarrely console me with).  OK I say.  Fine by me I say.  Thrilled to be in your movie I say.  No heroics for me, and this will affect any Hollywood career I am to have, if indeed I am to have one.  “We all gotta serve the movie Ralph” says Walter Hill. who is getting paid something in the region of a million dollars serving the movie.  “I’m prepared to sit here til midnight until you’re happy with the way the character should be played…”  

I leave one and a half hours later, shaking hands.  I press the lift button.  I can still hear them and strain an ear down the corridor – what are they saying?  “Fuck the guy – get him off the picture”  ?    I don’t want to hear it anyway.  I walk out through the lobby feeling as tight and tense and screwed up as a piece of wire.  I feel like vomiting.  I am driven home, feeling shaky and weird.  Meet my brother Paul and go to see Ken Loach’s Hidden Agenda at Screen on the Green – flawed but good (Brian Cox was excellent) – with the memorable line :  “Rule One : Look After Your Own Balls

Afterward to the pub and drinks and I start to unwind.  I am now paranoid about being cut from the film (like Veronica Cartwright was from Alien as Walter had gently reminded me earlier – I don’t want to alarm you Ralph but, well, yes, actually I DO want to alarm you.  Don’t end up like Veronica Cartwright…)  She was the one who cried a lot.  I suddenly remember that an actor was sacked after four weeks filming on Aliens because they found out that he was on acid or something (!) and so they re-shot all the scenes he was in.  So even after a month’s filming you’re not safe.  Damn.

David Fincher & Sigourney Weaver on the set of Alien 3, Pinewood 1991

Meeting with Fincher the next day.  Hi dude how was your meeting?  Walter and David said you’d reached a compromise.  Oh, that’s what they called it?  I felt as if I’d been taken slowly from behind.  I informed Fincher that although I loved him spiritually, I had in fact (sad to say) sold him down the river (still some quiver when I deliver) and that I had accepted the working-class thicko comic character idea to save my own balls (see Rule One above).  Fincher says “The fight’s not over.  Remember we’re working for 18th century Fox here”

Jan 21st

The rewrites come through.  As I expected.  Well, we all gotta serve the movie.  Fear stalks the set.  Everyone is applying Rule One.  And as we shoot mangled remains of Alien victims in dark corridors, the Gulf War is being prosecuted with extreme prejudice, and as Brian Glover soberly remarked, we could go to Baghdad and see the real thing.

my old mate Danny Webb with Sigourney on set

Someone steals a continuity photo of Sigourney with head shaved and sells it to the Today newspaper.  A mole on the unit.  Someone from props gets sacked.  We’re all looking over our shoulders.

Feb 4th

Picked up from Archway Road by Bill my driver who informs me that Jordan Cronenweth, legendary DP who shot Blade Runner had been replaced by Alex Thomson over the weekend.  Brian Glover is picked up in Fulham Road and gets severe wobbles for the rest of the day.  “It’s a portent Ralph, I wouldn’t be surprised if this film doesn’t get finished“.   Jordan’s disappearance has the opposite effect on me.  I finally reach my long-lost fuck-it level.  And I think : FUCK IT !   In the next scene I have only my vest and long johns, so my chest is showing.  Nick in make-up takes a long look : ” Ooh no, it’ll have to go”  What will?  “The chest hair love.  It’ll have to come off”   Jesus Christ.  I go all queenie for a second and flounce back to my dressing room to ponder my pectorals.  Shaved chest?  Never in all my born days….

Fuck It.  I don’t even phone Jenny to moan at her, because as soon as she hears my anxious paranoid actor’s whinge she’ll just search for things to say which won’t upset me.  No.  It’s my decision and I’ll shave the fucker.  Jesus Christ !  I’m an actor!!  Actors do all that shit!  It’s for the part, and the money.  Aaron shaves his chest.  I suddenly saw, for the first time since I was 15, what my body actually looked like.  I have to report that it could have been better.  Went straight home to the bench press and weights That Night.  But it was a liberating shave, a plunge into Fuck-It-Dom which released much of my tension and anxiety about the film.  FUCK IT !!!

Feb 5th

The canteen sequence.  Rewrites still coming in.  An IRA attack on Downing Street provides a fitting backdrop.  Sigourney is taking no prisoners today.  First it’s the hair:  “Your hair is too long Ralph, we should put some lice in it”   Then an hour later it’s the costume:  “How come Aaron gets to wear a nice clean shirt, while we’re all in dirty crap here?”     “It’s vanity pure and simple”  says the deep Barnsley burr of Brian Glover.  Thanks mate.   “So the stupid Aaron 85 looks really cool then” says Sigourney.  “Mr Normal”.  She stonks off.   I feel really weird now.  All my paranoias confirmed !   I think she is anxious about having a shaved head, but she has successfully managed to dump her insecurity onto me.

spoiler : Brian Glover is taken by the Alien in the canteen

 McGann wanders over and I tell him what has happened.  Sigourney walks past us :  “Oh look – a little tete-a-tete between Mr Sublime and Mr Ridiculous.  I’ll leave you guys to work out who’s  who”….  Paul turns to me.  “She’s going the right way for a smack in the mouth”.    At the tea break another actor tells me that Sigourney didn’t want any stars in the film and doesn’t speak to Charles Dance.  I am reminded of having my close-ups cut from Buster, and Phil Collins’ performance on Wogan, when he was asked who was playing Biggs (me) and he replied “Oh some new younger actor”.    You’re nobody in this town ’til everybody thinks you’re a bastard.

Aaron ’85’

Feb 6th

I’m being made up on set as Sigourney glides past.  “Don’t make him look too pretty I have to walk past him”…   ‘Trust your image Sigourney’,  I reply.  She hovers, so for something to say I tell her that my death has now been re-written FIVE TIMES so far, including : Alien eats me, Golic cuts my throat, I fall into lead mould, Company machine-gun me.  “I asked them to kill you off on page ten” she says.  A couple of hours later she pokes her tongue out at me.  Hey!  It occurs to me, perhaps she wants to fuck me !

She should be so lucky.

*

Years later I discover that Walter Hill has an eye condition that means he had to wear protective shades even indoors.  That Jordan Cronenweth was too ill to finish the shoot even with his son Jeff assisting him due to Parkinson’s.   After the premiere, Sigourney apologises for being mean.  Fincher encourages me to move to Los Angeles or LaLa as he calls it, so after our wedding in 1992, we do.   And later still.  Jenny’s sister Lucy Jules (see My Pop Life #135) gets to sing with George Michael on two world tours.  One night he sang Praying For Time.  I still think it’s his best song.

 

My Pop Life #170 : Make You Feel My Love – Adele

Make You Feel My Love   –   Adele

…there is nothing that I wouldn’t do…

It was Jenny who first connected this song to Delilah Rose – you couldn’t escape it in that first year of her life, on the radio, the TV,  all over the place, the beautiful baby child all together in our experience.  What is also extraordinary is that Make You Feel My Love was released on the day that she was born.

2 days old

My god-daughter Delilah-Rose was born on January 28th 2008 at The Royal Sussex County Hospital, just a few yards from our house in Brighton.  What a precious gift.  Her mother Millie was the first of our friends and family to move down to Brighton after we’d taken the plunge and left the metropolis in 1996.   Like Jenny and I, she was childless.  Our situation is complex and multi-layered, Millie’s was simple so she decided to do something about it and found Rupert, who also wanted children, but not a relationship.   I think she was very brave, and very inspired.  The resulting child, a beautiful girl, is a blessing to us all.

2 weeks old

We’d had a busy winter, as usual.  I’d finished my first play since 1990 – the hilarious and biting tale of a punk band reforming to make a credit-card commercial called The Dysfunkshonalz which played at The Bush in West London.  Written by Mike Packer, it re-introduced me to the joy and terror of being onstage, and the joy and terror of learning the guitar, which I had to play in the show, and I’ll write about it at a later date.  Then (pre-cat days!) we went to St Lucia with half the family for Christmas.  Jenny’s parents have a house there in the village of Mon Repos and some of us stayed there, some down the road in the beautiful Foxgrove Hotel.  I will blog that trip later too, it was amazing.

 

family gathering in St Lucia early 2008

Jenny left St Lucia earlier than I since she had to start rehearsals at The Almeida : Harold Pinter‘s The Homecoming,  an exciting production which had Jenny playing the first Ruth who wasn’t white (with Harold’s blessing) with Ken Cranham (mentioned here many times because of our musical connection), Neil Dudgeon, Nigel Lindsay, Tony O’Donnell and Danny Dyer completing the cast.  Michael Attenborough directed.

The last week of January 2008 Jenny was in the middle of Tech Week for The Homecoming,  which means work is from 10a.m. to 11p.m. and she stays in London at her parents, all back from St Lucia by now, and travels to Islington from there.  I am at home, preparing for an audition with Richard Curtis.

Then came Delilah-Rose.

Millie had workmen in her house finishing the loft, so after a night on the ward to make sure everything was fine, she and her new baby girl came to ours and stayed in our bed upstairs in the bedroom of love.  I think I must have been on the sofabed downstairs because of Chaz, Millie’s birth partner, sleeping in The Green Room.   So Delilah-Rose’s first house aged 2 days old was our house.  I was in love with her from day one, and eight years later (nearly nine!!) I still am.  She is my delight.  I am, of course, Uncle Ralph.

2 months old

Six months later Millie christened Delilah-Rose in her local church.  The godparents pledged to nurture the child in the ways of righteousness and so on.

Christening :   Me, Jen, Delilah Rose & Millie, Lawrence, Betty, Chaz

6 months old, St Luke’s Church

*

January 28th 2008 was also when Adele’s first album ‘19‘ was released.  Adele had been at the Brit School in Croydon, (same as my sister Lucy, and Amy Winehouse), graduating in 2006 and releasing a self-penned song on MySpace (remember those days?) which earned her a record deal with XL.    I bought the LP on the strength of the single Chasing Pavements but soon found this incredible song, written by Bob Dylan, which towers over the other songs in its simplicity and depth.  I’m not saying that Adele isn’t a strong songwriter – she is, and her 2nd LP ‘21‘ would bear that out even more than her great debut, but Make You Feel My Love is simply an outstanding piece of songwriting.  Covered by many artists, from Billy Joel to Bryan Ferry, Garth Brooks to Rebecca Ferguson, this version stands out as the best, revealing the young woman who was soon to be the most successful singer in the world, and one of the most successful of all time.  Pretty astonishing.

I love Bryan Ferry‘s version too, but my relationship with Bryan is eternal and faintly obsessive.   No one can sing the word “avenue” quite like Bryan.   Bob Dylan’s original, on the 1997 LP Time Out Of Mind is raw and instinctively unsentimental for reasons only Bob (and his millions of fans) will understand.  The greatest living songwriter perhaps, with a throwaway song that is held up and revered by so many, and spawns a thousand karaoke, Britain’s Got Talent, X-Factor covers.  Which has been enough to put many people off the song.  There is such a thing as over-exposure, but the best songs can deal with that.  This is one of those.

In the years that followed Adele’s success became simply extraordinary with Grammys, Oscars, Golden Globes and massive sales figures which have put her in the Guinness Book Of Records.  Over the same period Delilah-Rose has grown to be a simply delightful child, thoughtful, bright, helpful and affectionate, with all credit due to Millie.  Delilah does have a relationship with her Dad Rupert, and his extended family, but Millie is there every day.  When we lived in Brighton (and sometimes when I’m back) the phone will ring at 4pm or so and it will be Millie stuck in traffic and Uncle Ralph can you collect Delilah-Rose from school?  Some mornings I’m round there at 8 to take her to school because Mills has to drive to Norfolk or Chichester or Essex for a meeting.

10 & a half months old with Mimi

The first time I spent a long time with my god-daughter was Christmas Eve 2009.   I went over at 8a.m.   Millie gave me house keys and rushed out, not before pointing out critical areas such as nappies, food and favourite toys.  As the door closed Delilah and I looked at each other.  I remember thinking :  OK.  I have twelve hours with this child who isn’t quite two years old.  Now what ?   I decided to sit on the floor with her.  She immediately went to her toy box and one by one, pulled out a toy and showed it to me, naming it.  This took almost two hours!  After that we were firm friends.  We went into town to see Father Christmas in Churchill Square but she was a little young for that.  Mills eventually got home at about 9pm.  I’d changed nappies, made food, comforted, played and hugged – a perfectly normal day for any parent but a pretty special one for me.   I’ve had many more since then.

4 + 3/4 years old playing Snow White

you eyeballing me boy ?  (last week : 8 + 1/2 yrs old)

Moving to New York in 2014 was particularly hard for Delilah and I.  We saw each other every week.  Suddenly I wasn’t there.  I am still in her life though, and she is in my heart.  Only last week I was sitting on her bed reading her a story before she went to sleep.  Precious moments.  But it is exactly these moments that I have sacrificed in the move to Brooklyn, chasing the pension pot, the adventure and the fantasy of never growing old.  I miss my friends, my football team, my band, my family.  But mainly I miss the little ones, in particular Skye, and my god-daughters Delilah-Rose and Chloe.

Skye is 2, Delilah Rose is 8 

Millie bought the album “19” too, and one afternoon Jenny was round there, holding the baby girl in her arms as Milly was upstairs.  She must have been three months old.  This song Make You Feel My Love came on the stereo, and Jenny made a silent promise to herself and to the child, that she would keep for all of her life.

My Pop Life #169 : The Magic Hand – Stephen J. Kalinich

The Magic Hand   –   Stephen J. Kalinich

I met Stevie in the summer of 2006 in Brighton.  The band were rehearsing in Scream, just off the Lewes Road for a series of summer gigs we were booked for, including headlining Herne Bay in Kent at their summer festival.  Paul Adsett, a local Beach Boys aficionado, promoter and regular at our gigs around town, suddenly turned up with a gentle affirmative presence whom he introduced as Stevie, a performance poet and lyricist who had written lyrics for two Dennis Wilson songs in 1968, Little Bird and Be Still, both of which turned up on the Friends LP.  We were blessed with his presence and he was, of course treated like royalty, (at least in our poor imaginations!) but all he wanted to do was sit and listen to a few numbers.  We played Friends (My Pop Life #5) and Heroes & Villains (My Pop Life #111) and Little Bird, which we’d just learned.  No pressure !

Little Bird is a really interesting song.  Stevie and Dennis Wilson were siting around in the sunshine when the song appeared as a meditation on the simple wisdom of nature and eternity (how it began…), and the bliss of a sunny California afternoon.  The arrangement, by Brian Wilson, is one of the Beach Boys’ finest moments in my view.   Trumpets, cello and the always-interesting backing vocals make the song a jewel and a favourite of fans.  We didn’t do it full justice but it didn’t matter.  Stevie was thrilled to hear it.   A few days later a small cavalcade of vehicles left Brighton to drive to Herne Bay, and Stevie travelled with me in the Jeep, up the M23, right onto the M25 and along the M20 to the North Kent coast.  He told me of his early life in Binghampton, upstate New York before he’d moved to California in the mid-sixties and fallen in with the hippy crowd in Los Angeles, and particularly The Beach Boys circle.  He spoke with love of Dennis and Brian, well, all of them to be honest, (and he still does) and of his other friends Alan Boyd, Tracy Landecker, Carol, actors Stacy Keach and Rod Steiger, who’d died in 2002.  Stevie was honest, gracious, funny and warm, and I responded with a few racy anecdotes of my own.  You know, the one about Sigourney Weaver, that kind of stuff.

Charlotte, Adrian, Stephen Wrigley, Stevie, me, Rory, Dom, Glen, Theseus

In Herne Bay we set up and sound-checked and awaited our gig time.  A picture records the moment just before Stevie passed me his mobile saying “Ralph – a call for you“.  I took the phone and said hello.  “This is Brian Wilson” said an unmistakable voice “How are you?”  Stunned, I looked at Stevie who was smiling at me.  “I’m great Brian” I said, “I’m just about to go onstage and sing loads of your songs!”   I couldn’t believe it.  “Well don’t forget to play California Girls !” he said, “that’s the best one!“.  “We’re playing it first “I replied before saying goodbye and handing the phone back to Stevie.  This moment has naturally gone down in my personal history as A MOMENT.  It was magic, simple, loving.

The gig was fine, and Stevie joined us onstage to sing Little Bird.  Did he do a poem as well?  I cannot recall.  He will remember.  His memory is excellent.  I have to write things down otherwise they’re gone.  Marijuana apparently.  Anyway, I still have the setlist.  We didn’t open with Cali Girls…

Aug 26th Herne Bay

1st half

You’re Welcome                                                        Db

Heroes and Villains                                              Db

I Can Hear Music                                                   D

Catch A Wave                                                                     Eb

Surfer Girl                                                                           D

All Summer Long                                                  B

You Still Believe In Me                             B

Waiting For The Day                     E

Here Today                                         A

God Only Knows                                                    A

Pet Sounds                                                                           Bb

Caroline, No                                                                                    G

Friends                                                                                             D

And Your Dream Comes True                                          C

Then I Kissed Her                                                  C

Little Bird                                                Gm/F

In My Room                                                                                    B

Don’t Worry Baby                                                                                E

Long Promised Road                                                                C

Surf’s Up                                                                              

**interval**

Stevie at Carol’s place in Malibu, 2011

Aug 26th Herne Bay   2nd half

Sloop John B                                                              Ab

Sail On Sailor                                                                      G

Our Sweet Love                                                                          G/E

The Little Girl I Once Knew                                                           B/F#

Break Away                                                                         C

You’re So Good To Me                                          F

Shut Down                                                    C

Little Deuce Coupe                                                     G

Little Honda                                                                                 C

Surfin’ Safari                                                                                             A

I Get Around                                                                                       G

Dance Dance Dance                                                            A

Surfin USA                                                                D

California Girls                                                                  B

Wouldn’t It Be Nice                                                                      E

Do It Again                                                                                                D

Darlin’                                                                                              A

Help Me Rhonda                                                            C

Good Vibrations                                                  

*

Fun Fun Fun                                                                        D

Barbara Ann           ?                                                          ?                     

Love and Mercy                                                    

I cannot believe we actually played that many songs.  We didn’t do Barbara Ann I don’t think because we all dislike it quite a lot, which is unfair, but there you are.   But vocally we were on point I seem to remember 😉 and the audience were enthusiastic, sang along and danced.   The next day we’d made the front page of the Herne Bay Observer.

The following day Stevie came round to our house to meet Jenny.  As Jenny came down the staircase to say hi, I may have said something foolish like : “This is Stevie, he’s a poet.”  This was the open sesame to the world of Stevie.  My friend Eamonn has seen him in action, and so have I, and he is a force of nature when he performs one of his poems.  Stevie opened his arms and there and then began The Magic Hand :

Poems can never make adequate explanations

For man and his many hesitations, and his constant deviation from what is real…

They love me through wooden eyes, the tree of love in one heart lies,

The bough brushes gently along the ground, for waiting souls long to touch it

We sat on the stairs and watched and listened.  I guess The Magic Hand is god, or love.   The poems moves through death, growth, evolution, love.  When Stevie finished Jenny had tears in her eyes.  It was outstanding.  We all had a cup of tea and everything was all right.

We have The Hand of Fatima in our kitchen for protection, an old mid-eastern tradition.   Later Stevie and I watched my film New Year’s Day and he cried sitting on my sofa.  Bonded in saltwater, we have been firm friends ever since.  I guess we just passed our tenth anniversary.  I have seen Stevie many times since that  August, he came back to Brighton the following year and performed in Brighton Festival with ace guitarist Richard Durrant with The Galactic Symphonies before touring the UK, a spoken-word installation with film, slides, music and poetry.  Whenever I’m in California I look him up and we take tea.

We go straight to the point whenever we see each other.  No small talk.  It’s like an affliction, a lack of social nicety that we both suffer from (such that when people have forgotten my name, their first guess is usually Frank !) but which works when we are together.  We solve the problems of the universe.  Stevie is the best company in the world.

He talks of Dennis, who died in 1983,  often and with great feeling.  When Dennis’ fantastic solo LP Pacific Ocean Blue (1977) was finally released on CD in 2008 it contained – along with Stevie’s song Rainbows – the unreleased and oft-bootlegged LP Bambu as an extra which has another Kalinich/Wilson collaboration on it :  Love Remember Me.   Dennis voice is full of soul on these records.  What a talent.  In 2008 The Galactic Symphonies was also released containing The Magic Hand (with music by Durrant), and other works such as Bring In All The Poets and The Tale Of Man.

2011 came with another new album for Stevie called California Feeling and many of the Brighton Beach Boys played and collaborated on this record – Glen Richardson, Charlotte Glasson and Stephen Wrigley are all present, along with other dear members of the Beach Boys extended family such as Carnie and Wendy Wilson (from Wilson Phillips) singing Little Bird and The Honeys singing the title track.  By now Stevie had signed a new deal with archival boutique record label Light In The Attic who re-released the legendary album which Stevie made in 1968 with Brian Wilson, a spoken word with accompaniment dreamscape called A World Of Peace Must Come.   The first manifestation of The Magic Hand comes from this beautiful record a real slice of late 1960s spiritual hope.

So yes, Stevie is the original beat poet.  Consistent, spiritual, artistic and clear, with a vision which has remained at the forefront of his negotiations with the world, a sensitive puzzled curiosity which sees through the bullshit and the commerce and what is cool and goes always to the heart of the matter.  It draws people in wherever he goes, and I feel constantly proud to know him.  He affects people.  He can be naive and annoying sure, but so can I.  So can you.   So many stories.  He knows everyone in Los Angeles.  Not all for this post.  This is like an introduction.  For example,  Stevie is now a part of the Brighton music scene, having written and recorded songs with both Paul Steel (My Pop Life #1) and Cold Crow’s Dead.   But meanwhile he is still friends with Brian Wilson, they meet and walk on the beach occasionally.  Stevie has repeated the phone trick to me on various occasions when we’re together.  The conversation is always pleasingly random and surreal.

Stevie wrote a song with Brian called A Friend Like You which is on 2004 LP Gettin’ In Over My Head, and features Paul McCartney  After The Beach Boys Stevie was a writer with Jobete Music during the 80s, working with Randy Crawford, Odyssey and Mary Wilson, and his most recent collaborations have been with Nashville producer and player Jon Tiven. Recently he’s taken up painting and one of his works will grace the cover of the new album.

I think the person I am most pleased to have met via Stevie is his friend Alan Boyd.  My friend Alan Boyd I should say.  Mentioned at small length in My Pop Life #111.   Producer of California Feeling, Beach Boys & Brother Records archivist, film-maker, engineer, singer and compiler of many recent out-take LPs such as Hawthorne, CA and famously, finally after a wait of some 35 years, SMILE for which he and engineer Mark Linett won well-deserved Grammies in 2011.  I think Alan and I are quite similar – we like cats, Stevie, Harry Nilsson, Laurel & Hardy and 1920s pop music.  The steps used in the 1928 short The Music Box are just around the corner from Alan’s place in Silverlake.

‘The Music Box’ Laurel & Hardy  1932   Silverlake, Los Angeles

And Alan is a great musician in his own right, having released a harmonic pop album called Channel Surfing in 2004.  Most of my Los Angeles memories of the last ten years involve Eamonn Walker of course (see My Pop Life #104 ) and time spent hanging out with Stevie, Alan and Tracy, who is a writer, singer in the band Walker Brigade and authority on the legendary 60s girl group The Shangri Las.  Good people.  No, Suzy and Tony and Gwen, I’m not forgetting you !!

Most recently Alan wrote to me to ask if I wanted to contribute a track to the newest Kalinich album “Be Still : The Works Of Stephen J. Kalinich” with the corollary that it had to be delivered within seven days because the producer Al Gomes wanted to enter the resulting LP into the spoken word category of The Grammys this year.   Of course I said yes, and so did Jenny.  A few days later we were in my buddy Tony Gerber‘s office in Gowanus, a heavy curtain draped across the room to dampen the sound, speaking our chosen poems into a high-def microphone.  I did two takes of Bring In All The Poets and ran to the dentists and Jenny did The Tale Of Man three times.     The sound files were delivered, polished and produced and a CD was delivered to me here in Brooklyn this week – what a thrill. Stacy Keach has three pieces, Rose Weaver has two and Alan Boyd with Tracy Landecker, Lisa Haley, James Michael Tyler (another friend), Samaire Armstong and Al Gomes with Connie Watrous all have one each.  As do I and Jenny.  And Stevie contributes his signature piece The Magic Hand (not the version below) and an unheard out-take from A World Of Peace Must Come with Brian Wilson of ‘Be Still‘ itself.  What a thrill.  I listened to it.  Each song, each poem, is a work of art in its own right, except that mine, well.  I immediately wished I’d had the chance to do another take.  Always.  This is the artist’s way.  No, it’s all true.  As Leonardo Da Vinci once said – a work of art is never finished, merely abandoned.  It sounds abandoned to me, but who am I to judge?  What do I know?  Less and less and less I’m sure.  My brain is shrinking.  Dwindling.  This is a good thing.  It was way too big.  Big brains don’t make happiness or peace, quite the opposite. Our big brains are stopping us from empathising with each other, with animals, with ourselves.   So what do I know?  Right now, from my friend Stevie, and from my wife Jenny, I know that all that matters is kindness.  I want it to be how I live from this point onward.  The rest is sound and fury, money and doubt, self-esteem and anxiety.  Kindness.  Love.  Kindness.

Be still and know you are.

from A World Of Peace Must Come :  The Magic Hand