My Pop Life #210 : The Carnival Is Over – The Seekers

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The Carnival Is Over – The Seekers

High above the dawn is waiting
And my tears are falling rain
For the carnival is over
We may never meet again

1965 was the year of The Seekers, The Shangri-Las, The Skatalites, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, Bert Jansch & Ken Dodd, The Byrds & The Beatles, Bob Dylan & Tom Jones, Mum’s nervous breakdown and subsequent divorce from my father.  That all bled into 1966 too.   I was young – 8 years old – but not that young.

I previously wrote about the time my mum spent in Hellingly Hospital in My Pop Life #55 – Help! by The Beatles but it was all a blur in the end, apart from those few memories.   The songs of that year stand out as beacons of clarity in a world turning darker and confusingly indeterminate – twinkling shards of light in the doubt – but looking back the only ones I strongly remember were the number 1s (of which The Seekers had two).  And I wonder if that is because my dad and my Nan were looking after us,  and they didn’t have the radio on much, or maybe it was 1965 and they didn’t play Radio Luxemburg or Radio Caroline.  So only the ones off the telly got through to my ears.  Strange thought. Like a rent in the sound firmament.

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Me holding my brother Paul in the early 1960s

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Even though The Seekers break-through year was 1965, I rather feel that this song is set in 1966/7 after Mum had come out of hospital and bought The Best Of The Seekers LP and played it quite a lot.      Especially the first three tracks : Morningtown Ride, A World Of Our Own and The Carnival Is Over.

Mum had escaped from hospital by pretending to go for a walk one day.  She’d earlier made friends with a woman who was on the same meds as she was and a few beds along, and one day the woman had disappeared.  I actually remember Mum telling us this on one clear autumn day, when Dad took me, Paul and Andrew into the visiting room at Hellingly.  Mum, Heather Brown as was, said that she assumed the woman had gone home, got out of that place and was back with her family.   Then one day Mum had gone upstairs for something (?) and there was that same woman walking along the corridor, drugged up to the eyeballs and not recognising Mum at all.  We didn’t like that story and neither did Mum because shortly after that visit she was back home.  She’d just walked out and got on a bus.

Later on, maybe 1967 or even later, she told me of the circumstances of the escape and how the doctor had phoned her at home and said she would have to come back and she said no.  For a few days they negotiated, Dad, Mum, Dr Maggs and then she voluntarily went back to hospital for a short while, on the strict understanding that it was for a few weeks only.  I can’t remember how long for.  But a deal was struck and so at some point she was finally back at home to our huge relief.  I can’t claim to remember the celebrations, the hugs and kisses or the arguments that followed, just a few images of marmalade pots flying into the wall; glasses being removed and held high in the air; “don’t be so stupid“;  regular use of the words ‘bugger‘ and ‘off‘ and even the occasional ‘sod‘.  We hated it.

All this time or thereabouts, Lynne was babysitting for us.  She was a kind of flowery hippy type, skinny with long frizzy ashblonde hair.  She would marry our dad in 1973 if memory serves.  There’s an infinitely sad photo of Ralph, Paul and Andrew with John & Lynne outside the Brighton Registry Office.  The tear-drop shirts give me the date.  Years later mum would tell us of others, and other things that happened before the divorce was granted sometime in 1966 on the grounds of “mental cruelty”.   I didn’t really understand at the time, and actually remembered the entire two year period later as – a divorce followed by a nervous breakdown.  My memory had literally re-ordered the universe so that it made sense.  The divorce caused the breakdown.  We can all understand that, so some degree.  But no.  It was actually the other way around.  I unpicked the actual facts much later when I was fully grown and older than my parents were in 1966.

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I was going to school half a mile away towards the Downs and life went on as before but without Dad.  Nan still came up now and again, or more commonly it was Wendy who turned up who was our cousin from Portsmouth and must have been a teenager by then.  I wrote about her in My Pop Life #102 when she visited a few years later and went to Eastbourne with Mum to see Desmond Dekker.

The sacred music from this mid-sixties era is imprinted onto me like a stick of rock, all the lyrics, harmonies and tunes.  The Sound Of Music.  Oliver!  Motown. The Beatles.  Dionne Warwick.  And, yes – The Seekers.

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They were part of that early-60s folk wave of clean-harmony middle-class white folk who had a particular confidence, and a bright, clear and gently righteous sound – Pete Seeger, The Kingston Trio, The Weavers, Peter, Paul & Mary, The New Christy Minstrels, Joan Baez and John Denver.  The Seekers were somewhat more poppy folk from Australia and their first release was a version of Waltzing Matilda, which I have to report reluctantly is not as good as Rolf Harris’.  They travelled to Britain by ship then performed alongside Dusty Springfield (see My Pop Life #149) whereupon they also met her brother Tom who had earlier been in a popular group with his sister called The Springfields.  He wrote and produced a song for The Seekers called I’ll Never Find Another You in 1964 which eventually got to Number 1 in the UK. He also wrote The Carnival Is Over, Georgy Girl and A World Of Our Own.  The clear female voice is that of Judith Durham whose pitching is straight as an arrow clean centre of every note, supported by the three fellas whose harmonies thrillingly nestle under that clear pure voice, supporting and stretching the melody to its full promise and providing hair-on-the-back-of-the-neck every time.

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The Carnival Is Over is sung to an old Russian folk melody called Stenka Razin with original lyrics written by the poet Dmitry Sadovnikov in 1883 – and he told a historical tale of the Volga boatmen – a terrible dark story :

The Ballad of Stenka Razin

From beyond the wooded island
To the river wide and free
Proudly sailed the arrow-breasted
ships of Cossack yeomanry.

On the first is Stenka Razin
With his princess by his side
Drunken holds in marriage revels
With his beauteous young bride

From behind there comes a murmur
He has left his sword to woo;
One short night and Stenka Razin
Has become a woman, too.

Stenka Razin hears the murmur
Of his discontented band
And his lovely Persian princess
He has circled with his hand.

His dark brows are drawn together
As the waves of anger rise;
And the blood comes rushing swiftly
To his piercing jet black eyes

I will give you all you ask for
Head and heart and life and hand.
And his voice rolls out like thunder
Out across the distant land.

Volga, Volga, Mother Volga
Wide and deep beneath the sun,
You have never seen such a present
From the Cossacks of the Don.

So that peace may reign forever
In this band so free and brave
Volga, Volga, Mother Volga
Make this lovely girl a grave.

Now, with one swift mighty motion
He has raised his bride on high
And has cast her where the waters
Of the Volga roll and sigh.

Dance, you fools, and let’s be merry
What is this that’s in your eyes?
Let us thunder out a shanty
To the place where beauty lies.

From beyond the wooded island
To the river wide and free
Proudly sailed the arrow-breasted
ships of Cossack yeomanry.

It is a darkly male, anti-love, pro-warrior kind of song.  Not many of those in my Pop Life.  It alarms me that there is a strand in song – in men – with this death-cult kind of feeling being expressed and I copy it here for interest and as a kind of appalled question – is that who we are?  Really?  It actually appears very Greek – Medea killing her children.  According to Wikipedia  “the Dutch traveller Jean Jansen Struys (1630—1694), says that the murder was meant as a sacrifice with which Razin hoped to appease the much loved and feared Volga River”.

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In the Tom Springfield re-write the darkness disappears and we have a simple yearning lament for something lost, perhaps a brief affair with a lion-tamer or a clown, but the circus is leaving town and we get sympathetic lines :

Like a drum, my heart was beating
And your kiss was sweet as wine
But the joys of love are fleeting…

My mother, consciously or not, must have used this as an of anthem for her own doomed marriage.  It has a funereal beat to it, tragic and fated but yet graced with ethereal & beautiful harmonies that really lift you up from tragedy into a place of light and joy.  Quite an extraordinary effect.  It worked on Mum, and it still works on me. Some of the best songs have both joy and sadness in them.  And it hasn’t escaped me that I have avoided the in-depth discussion of my parent’s divorce and instead devoted some time to an exploration of the song.  There is a pattern here I believe.  Most of my traumatic moments, my lonely moments, my brave moments have been hidden inside my personal soundtrack.  The music made it all bearable.  Now older, I can be ambushed by all kinds of things which operate the hidden triggers to open those boxes of feeling, not always musical.  And I’m not sure if I have very much to say about my parent’s divorce anyway, except that it put me off marriage – or so I thought.  Once I was in fact married, I realised that it was divorce I wasn’t interested in.  Marriage was fine, as long as it was for ever.

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Andrew, Selmeston East Sussex 1965

Morningtown Ride opened the Seekers album and was our lullaby that we used to rock baby Andrew, now two, three years old :

Train whistle blowing, makes a sleepy noise

Underneath the blankets for all the boys and girls..

Rockin, rollin’ ridin, out along the bay

All bound for Morningtown, many miles away…

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Andrew it was who was hit hardest by the divorce because he had no real memory of his father being at home.  In that sense I became his father-figure at the tender age of 8.   In later years I always placed my younger brother in goal so that I could score past him, and he would get revenge by entering Paul and I’s bedroom and breaking carefully constructed airfix kits.    Middle brother Paul’s version of the damage control that comes from a broken home was a simple but devastating remark he made when I was 30 years old : “Ralph, you got the lion’s share of the confidence in our family”.  This is undeniable – as the oldest of three boys left at home with a recovering single mother, I’d had seven years with both parents, a reasonably stable base from which to build a person.  Paul had five years, Andrew one.  But having two parents isn’t the be-all & end-all of a healthy childhood.  Many other things come into play.  The carnival might have been over, but we could all still sing about it and we were all still together.

This blog contains 1965 words.

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My Pop Life #209 : Classical Symphony in D – Sergei Prokofiev

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Classical Symphony – Sergei Prokofiev

I should be on my way to Russia right now.  Quick stopover in Moscow then on to Ekaterinberg, the furthest east of all the World Cup 2018 venues.  That was the plan.  Targeting the game there on Friday – Egypt v Uruguay.  After the season that Mo Salah has had I’d like to see him at a World Cup.  Will he be fit ?  Hmmm

However here I am at home in Brooklyn having spent the afternoon on a reconnaissance trip to Brighton Beach.  Little Odessa, not Hove, actually.  Looking for World Cup vibes because we’re spending this World Cup in New York City.   We’ll be seeking out neighbourhood cafes and restaurants showing games, in particular representing the teams which are playing.  So, on Friday we’ll be heading to Bijans,  an Iranian restaurant in Boerum Hill, just down the road, for the must-win game for both Morocco and Iran since the other two teams in that group are mighty Portugal and Spain.

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Jenny and I in Soweto, World Cup 2010

But why aren’t we going to Russia then?  Jenny and I have been to the last six World Cups – in Los Angeles ’94, France ’98, Japan/Korea ’02, Germany ’06, South Africa ’10 and Brazil ’14.  Amazing times.  Truly.  But Jenny decided about a year ago that she didn’t fancy the Russia World Cup because of the continued racism at games in that country.  We met some Russians in Rio in 2014 on their way to the Maracaña to see Russia play Belgium.  I asked them where they were from and they, all fresh-faced and covered in flags, said “Irkutsk”.  Wow, I thought, remembering the Risk board from my teens, Siberia !!  They’ve come a long way.  And they seemed so sweet and naive and I remember thinking – the World Cup in Russia will be cool.  I still hold to that.  But Jenny has been in England for 4 months doing a play at the Donmar and only just got back, I don’t really want to fly off to Russia on my own, leaving Jenny behind,  in the hope of hooking up with our old football buddy Billy The Bee who has a slightly more England-centred agenda than me.  I did want to, but I didn’t.  I wouldn’t.  I haven’t.

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Me, Melissa (her 1st game!!) & Bella Bee at Griffin Park after 2-1 win v QPR

When I travelled to London in April to see Jenny in the play ‘The Way of The World‘  by William Congreve, I decided to see Billy to break the news to him that I wouldn’t be accompanying him to Russia.  I went west on the Piccadilly Line from Covent Garden to Northfields and walked down to The Globe, where I have been many times before for Brighton & Hove Albion away matches v Brentford, for Billy the Bee is, yes you guessed it, a Brentford fan, and today they were at home to West London Rivals Queens Park Rangers.  (Brentford won 2-1). As the afternoon and beers progressed, a number of Billy’s mates, including dear David Lane who I know, came up to Billy and expressed worry on his behalf in Russia.  None of them were going.  I added my forthcoming absence to his day.

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Billy the Bee in Johannesburg, World Cup 2010

Jenny and I met Billy on a train from Paris to Toulouse during France ’98. We watched the England v Romania game together on a pavement TV after failing to score tickets for the match, and found each other at every World Cup since then.  We were in Jo’burg together in a large house, went to Soweto pretty much every day.  You can find these stories on my other blog.  Rather weirdly they read from the bottom up.  Gonna see if I can fix that.

Anyway.

Russia.  I wish I was going.  But I’m not.  The country, the nation, its politics and culture has had a huge part in my life since I was small.  Always held up as the reason why people weren’t communist, or the reason why they were.  The 20 million war dead who stopped Hitler alongside the British and the Americans always turn up in arguments, rightly so.  I read Marx at school (he was German I know but his writing had a profound effect on Russia) and wondered why his teachings, which resembled those of Jesus in the New Testament, were so reviled in my own country.  I pieced it together fairly quickly, indeed to the extent that I chose to go to University at the LSE rather than Cambridge, and studied Lenin and the revolution.  There in the late 70s I did a course entitled “Soviet & Yugoslav Legal Systems” which made up 25% of my 3rd year, and was taught by Law Professor Ivo Lapenna who was a Slav.  Four or five times a class he would utter the famous formulation “according to Marxism…” and this almost made the three years of law worthwhile, indeed privileged was I to spend part of my youth sitting in educational establishments learning these things.  Ten years later in 1989 I read Mikhail Gorbachev‘s book Perestroika and was there in Berlin when the wall came down at the end of that momentous year (see My Pop Life #166).  There was a shrinkage of the Soviet state down to its essence, Russia, and the gangsters took over.

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And of course I’ve had to parse the media throughout my life regarding stories and attitudes to The USSR as it was known until I turned 33.  United Soviet Socialist Republic. Stories are inevitably negative until you read The Morning Star, or go to the source material, the history, the books that Marx or Gorbachev or Solzhenitsyn actually wrote.  They’re very good by the way.  The current Western bad guy is once again the Russian Bear, personified, as these short-hand attitudes always have to be, by a figure, in this case, Mr Vladimir PutinRandy Newman had a song called Putin on his last album which contained the opening line

Putin puttin’ his pants on

which is both hilarious and childish.  But now we’re supposed to be interested in these cartoon personalities and their egos.   Forgive me if I don’t get into politics, right now.

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And in parallel to these political revolutions and counter-revolutionary upheavals, I was reading Dostoyevsky and Solzhenitsyn as a teenager.  Crime & Punishment, The Idiot,  One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovitch, and Cancer Ward.  I actually wrote a short story whilst at school entitled One Day In The Life of Ivan ‘eadache Mum, which was a kind of parody of me being late for school as I recall.

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 I read Turgenev and the amazing Nikolai Gogol as a student, surrealist and hilarious material in the case of the latter, and my first Leo Tolstoy novel Boyhood.

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I finally read Tolstoy and Pushkin as an adult.  Of these, Tolstoy’s War and Peace is my favourite, I relished it, every word.  I will read it again if I live long enough.  Fyodor Dostoyevsky writes so well about people and I’ve always felt that The Brothers Karamazov perfectly described my two brothers and I.  But I was a teenager when I felt that and it may not stand up to detailed scrutiny to be fair.   The Idiot is quite superb.   The Peter Sellers film Being There is based on it.    I’m saving Anna Karenina for a rainy day, but remember clearly my first girlfriend Miriam Ryle reading it when she was 16.  I never got on with The Master & Margerita I must confess, but I’m prepared to have another go, neither have I got around to Nabakov yet.  Plenty of time for that I hope, and I have been told how great he is.

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I haven’t seen the Bolshoi Ballet, but I have seen a Russian ballet company from St Petersburg during the Brighton Festival with my friend Millie (who loves ballet) performing Tchaikovsky‘s Nutcracker Suite & Swan Lake.  It was a classic performance which for me meant it was a bit of a museum piece but it was breathtakingly beautiful.

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One of my top five films is Russian – I refer to Andrei Tarkovsky‘s Andrei Rublev, made in black & white in 1965.  It is a three-hour meditation on the life of the medieval icon painter Rublev, but that doesn’t even begin to touch at the remarkable achievement of this film. Seek it out and enjoy if you haven’t seen it.  I know it doesn’t sound like a film that you want to see, and there’s nothing much I can say to change that, except that it is absolutely breathtakingly brilliant.  All of Tarkovsky’s films are extraordinary in different ways – I name-checked his sci-fi masterpiece Solaris in My Pop Life #121.  The final film, made in Sweden is called The Sacrifice and again it is quite an astonishing piece of work.

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Original poster for Battleship Potemkin, 1925

Other Russian films I have marvelled at include Elem Klimov‘s ‘Come and See‘ about the effect of war on a young man, some of the images from that screening sometime in the early 1980s are seared onto my brain.  And of course Sergei Eisenstein‘s Battleship Potemkin and Alexander Nevsky are both essential viewing for film buffs as is Bondarchuk‘s War & Peace.  And just last year I was sent a BAFTA dvd for the film Loveless, directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev which was quite superb.

I have managed to avoid Dr Zhivago both in print and on screen.

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Anton Chekhov

Anton Chekhov of course was a genius, if there is such a thing, and his plays have thrilled me. From The Seagull with John Hurt to Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard and Uncle Vanya -they are all exceptional, exquisite. My friend Simon Korner was pleading with me to read Chekhov’s short stories when we were both 18, and I finally read them in my 40s.  They are indeed quite the finest short stories I think I have ever read, although James Baldwin still takes some beating.

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‘Day of the Artist’ by Marc Chagall

Marc Chagall is Russian isn’t he ?  Belorussian.  I love his work.  And the propagandists of the revolution created some incredible stuff.   And Kandinsky.  I’ll only get into trouble if I start rabbiting on about Constantin Stanislavski and the method school of acting.  I read his book as a young man – of course I did, having not trained as an actor it was the least I could do.  I’ve never really got past the “if you’re acting it you have to experience it” thing though, having played a number of killers myself over the years and never actually killed someone to see what it feels like.

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Sergei Prokofiev

And so to the music.  I should have listened to Peter & The Wolf as a child but I have no memory of it.  Sergei Prokofiev wrote it in 1936 when he was 45 years old, and had finally settled in Moscow after leaving Russia in 1918, although he was never an exile from the Revolution as I understand it.   I suspect Tchaikovsky was the first Russian music I listened to – Swan Lake no doubt which I even suspect we may have owned on 78 rpm and played on our portable wind-up gramaphone (see My Pop Life #43).  Once you’ve heard of someone, you keep hearing it of course.  Everyone’s a Fruit and Nut Case was a commercial on British TV (Cadbury’s chocolate) to the tune of Sugar Plum Fairies.  Then it was probably the 1812 Overture  with it’s cannon gimmick, then he gets a mention in Harold Pinter’s  The Caretaker which I did for A-level English Literature, then the Ken Russell film The Music Lovers.  Of course I must mention Mussorgsky because in 1971 I bought the Emerson Lake & Palmer LP Pictures at an Exhibition which introduced me to public humiliation being a prog-rock canter through his song suite of the same name and deeply uncool.

Sergei Rachmaninov crept in at some point in my 20s – particularly the 2nd Piano Concerto which Eric Carmen borrowed for the pop song “All By Myself“.  Later I would buy an album called Rachmaninov Plays Rachmaninov which I recommend very highly indeed.  He had very large hands and could play a natural 12th on the piano with ease.   Anyway, I never really considered Prokofiev or Rachmaninov or Tchaikovsky to be Russian.  They were “Classical” composers who became international and of no nation almost because of the music.  I’m still learning though, because classical music went through a very nationalistic phase 100 years ago when each nation’s composers started to celebrate their own folk music and turn it into high art, and the Russians participated in this too.  Did Borodin try it ?  Not sure.

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Scheherezade – painting by Léon Bakst

My current swoon is Rimsky-Korsakov‘s Sheherezade which is a suite based on the Arabian Nights and is stunning.  I listen to it once a week, it is quite tremendous.   I didn’t start checking out Dimitri Shostakovitch or Igor Stravinksy until later – but in-between these musical giants  I fell in love with the genius of Sergei Prokofiev.

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I think I bought the Classical Symphony when we were living in Los Angeles in 1992-5.  Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard was a giant Emporium of music – I remember bumping into Meera Syal & her then husband Shekhar Bhatia in there one afternoon, a basketful of CDs in the crook of my arm.  I think they were on holiday, but perhaps Meera was auditioning for things.  Bless her.  Perhaps Prokofiev was in there.  It is his 1st symphony, written in Russia in the summer of 1917, weeks before the October Revolution. He called it the Classical Symphony himself, because he felt that one of his heroes Franz Josef Haydn (see My Pop Life #134) would have written in that style were he alive.  Indeed, all of Haydn’s 106 symphonies are very short and the form then got heavily stretched by Mozart,  Beethoven and later Mahler so that you might be sitting for 95 minutes watching and listening to Mahler’s 3rd Symphony.  In contrast, Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony is very short – in my version by Leonard Bernstein & the NY Philharmonic it comes in at under 14 glorious minutes.  It is a sprightly, melodic, wonderfully-arranged piece with massive dynamics which still thrill me today when I listen to it.  It has both old-fashioned and very modern elements which the ear picks up on immediately.  It does its thing & gets out, rather like Haydn did with his 12-minute symphonies in the 1790/1800s and is similarly instantly accessible and hugely enjoyable.

Prokofiev didn’t stick with the short format for his symphonies, indeed his 5th Symphony which appeared on the same CD is 40 minutes long and very different musically, though similarly popular.  Other works of his which I like very much include the 3rd Piano Concerto, often paired with Ravel‘s 1st Piano Concerto and one of the finest works of the 20th century to my sweet-toothed ear.  His other best-known piece perhaps is the troika from Lieutenant Kije which actually sounds like a three galloping horses pulling a carriage across a white winter landscape.  The Brighton Beach Boys played it at our Christmas gigs and I was charged with playing the melody on my alto in a duet with the French horn.  Greg Lake including the melody in his miserable Christmas hit I Believe In Father Christmas at the suggestion, apparently of Keith Emerson.  It’s the best part of the song.

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I also have David Bowie narrating Peter & The Wolf, where each character in the story is played by a different instrument.  I’m sure you know it.  I have the first 2 Violin Concertos.  There is plenty of his work I have yet to hear, and I can’t claim to be any kind of authority on him.  I just love this piece of music.

So I’m indebted to the Russians for much of my cultural and political nourishment.  Russia is a major slice of me as I hope I’ve illustrated above.  I hope they put on a good World Cup and enjoy it, particularly the non-racist fans.  I hope those visitors from all over the world have a splendid time there over the next four weeks.  I’ll be watching from my sofa and in the various Egyptian, Colombian, German, English, Senegalese, Iranian, Spanish, Nigerian, French, English and Brazilian restaurants of New York City.   I think Brazil will lift the trophy,  who knows.  But deep down, I wish I was there too.

Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic in 1968

My Pop Life #208 : I Can’t Win – Ry Cooder

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Can’t Win – Ry Cooder

9th June 2018

We went to see Ry Cooder last night in the Town Hall a wonderful old venue with a really intimate feel on 43rd St, built in 1921 by suffragette supporters.  Jenny knew the venue from an event a couple of years ago directed by her godfather Nicolas Kent – it was a staging of the transcripts of Trump’s picks for Attorney General I think.  The beer is served in plastic cups with logos which cost $5 thus the first round was $28.  She did warn me to be fair, and they only charge you for the cup once.  What a world.

Ry Cooder opened with an old song called Nobody’s Fault But Mine which was written by Blind Willie Johnson then covered by everyone including Led Zeppelin.  He sat centre stage with a battered old acoustic guitar, his white hair covered with a blue wool bobble hat (without the bobble) and there was a young man playing a treated saxophone at the side.  Treated electronically, acoustically, sonically who knows it was haunting all night.  Cooder delivered the song with the authority of a delta bluesman, picking notes, sliding his bottleneck up and down the strings which twanged and shuddered and whispered under his touch.  He was so connected to this song, with the changes and the lyrics, it was evident in every note.

I was introduced to Ry Cooder by Sir Nick Partridge.  He wasn’t Sir Nick in those days, he was Nick P., a fresh-faced and pleasant young man who lived in the flat on West End Lane that Pete and Sali owned and that I lived in too.  He was my flatmate. Known Pete since schooldays.  I’d just finished my degree in Law at the LSE and Nick had graduated from Keele University doing International Relations.  We were all post-graduates suddenly.  I was saving money for a further “year off” as we called them back then.  This was 1979 and the future lay ahead of us. Education and academia was, it seemed, finally behind us.  We used to go record shopping together because there was so much to discover !  There still is some 40 years later !!!

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Nick Partridge and Ralph Brown in a North London record shop, 1979.  Picture taken by Pete Thomas.

I was painting and decorating that summer in Pinner, and later moved onto a house in St John’s Wood, definitely worthy of its own post.  My previous mentions of this vivid era of my young adult life were in posts about Talking Heads (My Pop Life #92 ) John Martyn (My Pop Life #153) and The Specials (My Pop Life #178) and Nick features in all of them.  We were a little musical commune up there between the railways of the Jubilee Line to the south and the Thameslink line to Hertfordshire to the north PLUS the North London Line which carried nuclear waste past our building overnight while we listened to Ry Cooder and The Gladiators.  My girlfriend Mumtaz was in Mecklenburgh Square and would come and squat cross-legged on the floor with us as we passed the bliss.

In the evenings and at weekends we were all obsessed with listening to music and going to gigs.  Pete was very much a reggae aficionado but also fond of the quirky post-punk world emerging from the rubble of 1977, a plethora of independent labels issuing interesting stuff of all kinds like Wah! Heat, SpizzEnergi, Flying Lizards, or The Auteurs all with picture sleeves and original music.   In my capricious memory Sal was more into rock and I was a student new wave ex-punk who listened to soul, but Nick was always different.  Later he would live on a houseboat in Amsterdam doing a blues radio show but that’s another story, if you’re lucky.

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It was Nick who had Boomer’s Story and Paradise & Lunch and in the stoned democratic disc jockey world of West End Lane between the rails, when he got his turn for an LP side, it would often be one of these Ry Cooder records which were kind of country kind of bluesy kind of funky, but often with an added flavour from somewhere else.  Americana it would be called now.

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Then in 1979 he brought home an LP that looked like a new wave record, bright pink with a guitar player who looked a bit Nick Lowe but no.  It was the new Ry Cooder album called, unfeasibly, “Bop Til You Drop” and now we would all choose this record when our DJ turn came around.  Opening with a cover of Elvis Presley’s Little Sister but thereafter delving into obscure 60s R’n’B – Go Home Girl, Don’t You Mess Up A Good Thing, Trouble You Can’t Fool Me, Look At Granny Run Run – and a brilliant original song called Down In Hollywood (‘better hope that you don’t run out of gas…’), the album had a fantastic production quality on the guitar and backing vocals particularly.  In fact Bop Til You Drop was the first album ever recorded digitally.  Cooder is a magnificently rootsy guitarist, not a show-off in any way, but just tries to get the soul out of the instrument, and the backing vocals on the album were by Terry Evans & Bobby King who would later record their own record with Ry Cooder producing and playing on every track.  What I didn’t know until last night (too stoned to read the liner notes or maybe just not that nerdy after all) was that Chaka Khan sings on Down In Hollywood and Good Thing.   He had roughly the same line up last night – although not the same players.  Jenny turned to me at one point – probably during The Very Thing That Makes You Rich (Will Make Me Poor) and said “What would you call this music?”  I said “country soul?”.  She could hear mariachi.  It’s funky.  It’s hawaian.  It’s blues.   It’s music.

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Cooder plays without any ego at all, and often uses the concert (and indeed many of his record releases) to showcase other people and give them a turn in the spotlight.  Last night it was his wonderfully relaxed backing singers The Hamiltones who played a couple of numbers while he left the stage, then joined them on guitar for another.  Earlier it had been his son Joachim who opened proceedings with his own music.  Ry Cooder it was who travelled to Havana in the 1990s breaking the boycott and encouraging the old stars of the 1950s to team up and record again, the resulting film and album opening up Cuba to the world once again and introducing me to Ruben Gonzales, Ibrahim Ferrer and Compay Segundo playing together as the incomparable Buena Vista Social Club.

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He has recorded with the great Malian blues guitarist Ali Farke Toure on Talking Timbuktu, with Captain Beefheart on Safe As Milk (see My Pop Life #205) with Taj Mahal in the band Rising Sons, with Randy Newman on 12 Songs, the Rolling Stones on Let It Bleed & Sticky Fingers, on Lowell George‘s original version of Willin’.  All playing slide guitar or bottleneck.  In 1984 he composed the soundtrack to Wim Wenders’ film Paris, Texas which starred Natassia Kinski and Harry Dean Stanton and following that became a sought-after soundtrack composer using his signature slide guitar.  He’s made albums with the latino community of Los Angeles such as Lalo Guerrero and Don Tosti (Chavez Ravine) and if left to his own devices appears to be following in the footsteps of his hero 1940s political folkie Woody Guthrie.  Or one of his heroes.

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Woody Guthrie 1943

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In a new song last night he sang of a meeting between Jesus & Woody in heaven, looking down on what is happening now, from the vantage point of the 1950s when we had beaten the fascists and the world stretched out before us.

Jesus & Woody

Well bring your old guitar and sit here by me
Round the heavenly throne
Drag out your Oklahoma poetry, ’cause it looks like the war is on

And I don’t mean a war for oil, or gold, or trivial things of that kind
But I heard the news, the vigilante man is on the move this time

So sing me a song ’bout this land is your land
And fascists bound to lose
You were a dreamer, Mr. Guthrie, and I was a dreamer too

Once I spoke of a love for those who hate
It requires effort and strain
Vengeance casts a false shadow of justice which leads to destruction and pain
Some say I was a friend to sinners
But by now you know it’s true
Guess I like sinners better than fascists
And I guess that makes me a dreamer too

It was a chilling song but it wasn’t the only time that the name of Jesus was called.  One of his biggest hits was gospel standard Jesus On The Mainline,  and with The Hamiltones‘ soulful harmonies it was a standout moment at the gig.  And it became clear to Jenny and I that we were really at a gospel show.  In the sense that the black church in America has long been a vehicle for resistance to oppression, using the biblical metaphors and stories to illustrate the struggle and gospel music to inspire and strengthen courage.  Cooder never went preachy, but he was very clear where he stood.  He mentioned Trayvon Martin before playing a song called The Vigilante.  It was the lack of ego that was most striking in the end.  Playing the guitar to try and find the most expressive notes, not to show-off or strike poses.

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Ry Cooder With Taj Mahal, 1968

And indeed, it seems to me this morning thinking back on Sir Nick as a young man in West Hampstead, smoking dope with a generous smile and a ready laugh that he had no ego then or indeed now.  He always had an easy manner where embarrassment was never far from the surface, mixed with laughter and great empathy.  I went to Hampstead Magistrates with him one day and watched him with his gentle phrasing and easy manner talk his middle-class way out of a conviction and get a finger-wagging in its place.

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Sir Nick with Kirsten O’Brien

Shortly after the Amsterdam year he joined The AIDS charity The Terrence Higgins Trust in 1985 becoming Chief Executive in 1991 and finally moving on in 2013 after 28 years of service and a knighthood which followed his OBE.   We formed a close bond in those 1979-1980 days and nights and beyond into the frisbee-playing, gay nightclubbing, political 1980s, stayed in touch right up until today.  I had no idea that he was gay back then but he’s never made a big deal out of it or changed his basic persona of decency, sincerity and jokes.

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Sir Nick talks with brother Andrew, Whitstable Bay.  My dad can be seen with check shirt on the pebbles between them

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Paul Brown is 50 in his beach hut and quite a tremendous shirt

The first time any of us saw Nick after he was knighted in the 2009 New Year Honours was at my brother Paul’s 50th birthday celebration which he held in Whitstable, Kent.  It was a wonderful weekend of family – Dad & Beryl came down from Yorkshire, Becky was back in Sussex by then and Jenny and I had summer son Jordan in tow – Dee’s youngest who had a key period of spending the summer with us in Brighton.  Sir Nick was there in the beach-hut, Paul was back from Shanghai mixing cocktails in a straw hat, Richard Davies (Lady G) was probably DJing and drinking at the same time and a splendid time was guaranteed and enjoyed by all.

Nick and his husband Simon have been to New York since we moved here – I remember him asking me what he should see on Broadway – it was 2016.  I had a one-word answer : Hamilton.  He bought tickets online, then I had to go to work when he was here so I missed him, but he saw the show and, of course, loved it.

Paulette & Beverley Randall, Paul Brown & Sir Nick Partridge, London 2015

I did see him the year before when Paul was in London for his birthday a couple of years ago – 2015 I guess.  And then he came to send me off on my 60th birthday last summer when I hardly spoke to anyone, but hugged everyone.   I am extremely fond of him and will always be grateful for his friendship and for bringing Bop Til You Drop (and Memphis Slim…) into my life.

The last song on the album is called I Can’t Win and it is a haunting and soulful three-part harmony, simply a beautiful song about being in love with someone who isn’t responding.  We’ve all been there, but I haven’t made a habit of it thank god.  When the gig finished last night the entire band went off for about 90 cursory seconds then returned immediately as we all stood and clapped for the encore.  And they sang I Can’t Win with piercing harmonies that made the hairs on the back of our necks stand on end.  It was the pinnacle on a great night.  And it’s already up on Youtube.

Live at Town Hall June 8th 2018:

Album Version :