My Pop Life #238 : Hot Pants – James Brown

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Hot Pants   –   James Brown

Hot Pants…

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Number 2 Somerfield Road, Finsbury Park.  Top flat – under the eaves, a one-room attic dwelling with two sloping ceilings.  I lived there with Mumtaz, my girlfriend whom I’d left in 1980 to explore South America with my brother Paul for a year’s travel, but returned after four months spent in Mexico with tail between legs and Hepatitus B.  She took me back in, and life went on.  Finsbury Park, as noted in My Pop Life #42 was a delight.  Every now and again we could hear a muffled roar of delight from Highbury as Arsenal scored.   Not that often obviously, ha ha ha.  One-nil to The Arsenal was the 80s cry.   My beloved Brighton & Hove Albion’s cup run in 1983 took us to a semi-final against Sheffield Wednesday at Highbury.   Down the road.  I went to the game, which we won 2-1 thanks to a brilliant Jimmy Case free kick.  We were in the Cup Final!  1983 was clearly a blessing all round.  Laurie Jones was downstairs, communist, comrade, veteran of the Cable St riots against Moseley’s blackshirts and maker of his own wine.   In work mode :  the premiere and run of  Steven Berkoff’s “West” at the Donmar Warehouse in May of that year.   My first fully professional, fully paid proper acting job.  We ran there for five months then filmed it for the new Channel 4 (see Let’s Dance My Pop Life #221).

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In saxophone playing mode I was on this tune – Hot Pants.  Deceptively simple, it has to be precise, punchy, tongued exactly, every note must be the right length, it must attack, and the timing is everything.  Like all of James Brown’s magnificent work, the percussive element is primary, and the bulk of the tune is carried over one chord until the bridge, the long awaited release of the bridge.  Take it to the bridge.  Shall I take it to the bridge?  The famous cry from Sex Machine.  One of the genius elements of James Brown is how long you have to wait for the bridge in almost every song.  He knows his dynamics.  So did George Mack.

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Who?  This fella, a tremendous Anglo-Nigerian singer from Finsbury Park.  Where did we meet?  How did we find out that we were both musicians?  I cannae remember captain.  But this I do know – I was playing Hot Pants in the flat while Taj was at work because the band I was in at this time – George’s band Arc Connexxion – had it in their set.   I was one of three horns in Arc Connexxion, an afro-pop outfit which was a bit Fela Kuti, a bit soul, a bit funk, and a bit of George’s own compositions.  It was fun.  Looking back, it is exactly the kind of band I long to play in right now, here in New York : dance music with a brass/woodwind section, african-influenced.

I’d bought James Brown’s 30 Golden Hits while I was at LSE a few years earlier, exploring the landscape of soul music with my Glaswegian friend Lewis MacLeod. We were beyond aficionados, we were obsessed with hunting down the very best soul tunes of the previous 25 years.  Motown of course, Stax Records indeed, Atlantic’s huge six-album box set, Philadelphia Records and then all the other smaller labels – Sue Records, Curtom, Brunswick, SAR, Hi, et al.  I remember buying Stay With Me Baby by Lorraine Ellison one day like finding treasure on a desert island and we played it over and over, What A Difference A Day Makes by Esther Phillips, Why Can’t We Live Together by Timmy Thomas, Love TKO by Teddy Pendergrass, all golden.

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But James Brown was the record which got played a lot.  James Brown was on King Records, an independent label based in Cincinatti, Ohio. The greatest hits album was on Polydor and was a great primer to the man’s genius.  Hard to remember life before the internet, but the moment I saw Please Please Please on television I’ll never forget – the famous cape drama, the anguish, the concerned bandmates, the eruption of emotion when the cape is cast aside Yet Again. It’s magical theatre of soul music so it is, check it out, never gets old :

Lewis and I were hooked frankly.  Each song was better than the last – I Got You, Night Train, Think, I Feel Good, Out Of Sight, Try Me, I’ll Go Crazy,  Poppa’s Got A Brand New Bag, Cold Sweat.  We wished we could see him live.   He never came.  But, eventually, he did.  It was in Brighton one summer in Stanmer Park in the year 2000.  It was called the Essential Festival.  James Brown’s star had waned, he hadn’t charted for years, but his name was still synonymous with legend.  However, he was 67 years old, all the hype was that he only did 20 minutes in all, the bulk of the show was the band and younger singers & rappers.  And by then I’d immersed myself in Live At The Apollo the greatest Live Album of all time, and gorged on the youtube clips of the man in his prime, It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World, Say It Loud (I’m Black And I’m Proud) and the ubiquitous, brilliant Sex Machine.  I didn’t want those images to be replaced by a disappointment.  So I actually chose not to go.  Do I regret it now?  Kind of.  Yes.  Of course.  Other people I’ve rocked up to when in their 70s – McCartney, Aretha, Roberta Flack – and one in his 90s the amazing Tony Bennett – were all superb.  We were a little nervous about Aretha because there was some word of mouth that sometimes she “doesn’t turn up”, well she certainly did that night (see My Pop Life #225) god bless her, so that was nonsense.  But I remember distinctly deciding to swerve the great Godfather of Soul James Brown.  A fairly childish decision really.  The great festival- going kid of the 1970s had turned into the tight-assed muso-snob of the millenium.  But since I wasn’t there, I can’t tell you about The Essential Festival that year.  Silly me.

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Arc Connexxion rehearsed at George’s house just down Blackstock Road from where I lived.  Once a week in the evening.  I do not remember the rest of the band at all.  Who were they?  A racially mixed bunch who could play Motown, Fela and James Brown.  Out of my league perhaps, but playing a James Brown horn line is considerably easier than attempting John Coltrane or Stan Getz (see Desafinado My Pop Life #68), in fact playing in a horn section (this was my first time) is easier than playing solo.  But you have to be tight.  Tight as a camel’s arse in a sandstorm tight. The tongue on the reed has to be exact.  Percussive.  I loved it.  Our crowning moment was playing at Notting Hill Carnival after Aswad in August 1983 where we were last on the bill, and didn’t get to play Hot Pants after all (see My Pop Life #42).  We were hustled on and told we could play one song before the curfew and Carnival had to close.  We played Martha Reeves’ Dancing In The Street, and hundreds of people who didn’t want to go home yet did just that.  Fantastic.  It was our biggest crowd ever.

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Jenny and Lulu went to the James Brown gig in 2000 and reported back disappointment and a sense of a great artist being wheeled out, a circus act.  Jenny says that apparently James Brown actually was James Brown for one whole song (I should have gone), after which he went off and the young performers, rappers and funkateers played for 15 minutes before he came back, but he just couldn’t do it again and he simply stopped being James Brown and became a kind of JB tribute act and so she was sad.  So was Lulu.  A few years later Jenny and her sister Lucy saw Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis who were both in their late 80s and while Chuck was still Chuck Berry, Jerry was on a zimmer frame and scarcely present.  I’ve felt this way about Brian Wilson, my absolute musical hero, for the last few years.  They’re wheeling out a cash cow.  He’s not Brian anymore.  Leave him be.

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But James Brown?  If you think about it he has to be the greatest genius of popular music.  You could argue Louis Armstrong and it might be difficult to resist.  But JB is a giant.  He emerged from the 1950s as a fully formed soul star before the term had even been invented, fusing R & B and gospel into a funk sound a whole decade before it was even thought of.  During the 1960s the sound was honed and streamlined, the melody lines erased and the rhythms amplified and tightened.  The Vocals were punctuated howls, shrieks, shouts and calls.  Astounding. Pure dance music.  Popular, political, immersive, irresistible.  He was the first and most popular artist to be sampled on the turntables of DJs in the South Bronx, the drum breaks of Clyde Stubblefield are all over old skool hip hop.  All hip hop.  When he stole the rhythm and riff of Bowie & Lennon’s Fame from Young Americans for his song Hot (I Need To Be Loved, Loved, Loved) in 1975, no one blinked.  I suspect Bowie thought it was an honour frankly, which indeed it was. JB was infamous for running his band like a military outfit, musicians would get fined for missing a cue or a bum note or a snare hit on the wrong beat or being seconds late for rehearsal.  Not greasing their patent leather shoes or tying their bowtie.  A number of times bandleader PeeWee Ellis walked out only to come back, but in 1970, Ellis, Stubblefield, Fred Wesley and the other Famous Flames never came back and JB then recruited players from Cincinatti band The Pacemakers to replace them, include Bootsy Collins (see Give Up The Funk My Pop Life #138). He called the new band The J.B.s.  His rhythms are in house music, soul music, funk, hip hop, jungle, drum & bass, disco, you name it.  Michael Jackson’s greatest influence.  I can’t do him justice in this bloglet of mine and by the way he was probably bonkers too but what a musical giant.  What a towering extraordinary figure in the musical landscape. What a force.

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When The Brighton Beach Boys played people’s parties or weddings we would play a whole load of other material – disco, funk, ska, rock n roll and even Steely Dan and ELO, and when he can, our very own nutty drummer the itinerant rhythmicist Theseus Gerrard (mentioned in My Pop Life #111 and others) gets up to sing Get Up Offa That Thing and the whole room goes up to a different level.  We played it at Caroline Lucas’ 50th birthday in Brighton at the Indica Gallery in town which is based in an old church, and Theseus quite naturally climbed into the still-present pulpit to deliver his message of funk.  He’s a natural the fucker.  The funk of forty thousand years.

So I’ve played at least two James Brown songs in my short musical career.  Hot Pants is my favourite.  Could I get to play anymore before my ultimate death?  I’m 63 now.  Time is ticking…

 

The original number one hit single from 1971, Parts One & Two

Live and direct in 1985…

My Pop Life #237 : Have You Seen Her – The Chi-Lites

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Have You Seen Her – The Chi-Lites

One month ago today
I was happy as a lark
But now I go for walks
To the movies, maybe to the park
And have a seat on the same old bench
To watch the children play, huh
You know, tomorrow is their future
But for me just another day
They all gather around me
They seem to know my name
We laugh, tell a few jokes
But it still doesn’t ease my pain
Well, I know I can’t hide from a memory
‘Though day after day I’ve tried
I keep sayin’ – she’ll be back –
But today again I lied

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It entered the UK Pop Charts on 15th January 1972.  One of the most original and enduring songs of that era, today it still stands out as timeless superior music.  That Christmas we had enjoyed and endured Benny Hill singing Ernie endlessly smirking at us the grubby little toe-rag, then The New Seekers had cleansed us and tried to help us all to sing in Perfect Harmonover.  1971 had been my year of sentience musically, by which I mean to say that I had started listening to music in a different way.  Being catchy and easy to hum wasn’t enough any more.  Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep they sang.  We had other words for it.  And alongside the dross of Jonathan King and Johnny Reggae there was Rod Stewart and The Faces dropping Maggie May, there was Labi Siffre’s utterly magnificent It Must Be Love and there was Isaac Hayes with the astonishing Theme From Shaft (see My Pop Life # ).  I yearned for more complex music now, and wasn’t too discerning or careful – well I was 14 years old.  It was pot luck really.

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I’d bought Pictures At An Exhibition by Emerson Lake & Palmer, a moog-synthesised Mussorgsky mess which I irritated my family with.  I also had the Van Der Graaf Generator LP H to He (Who Am The Only One) and the title alone should give you a clue to its genesis.  Great band though, they still sound astounding in 2020.  And I had The Moody Blues finest hour In Search Of The Lost Chord which the entire family can still recite word perfectly I’m sure, I certainly can.  One of my LPs that got played downstairs.  Random post-hippie albums. Long Players.  But the singles chart was still the thing for all of us.  Top of the Pops on Thursday and Pick of the Pops on Sunday.  Religious observance of both.  Indeed I am not the only person to hold the music of 1971 so close to my heart – one fella, music journalist David Hepworth, has written a whole book about it.

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My friend Martin Steel tried to acquaint me with this particular book of the old testament a few years ago but some technical issue prevented it.  Thus I haven’t read it, but I sense through the osmosphere that this is a faintly rockist tome, and concentrates on white boys and guitars, which is both a shame and a flipping disgrace.  I wait for the day when Black Lives Matter infiltrates that particular monolithic way of consuming music, which I have struggled with for most of my life.

I’ve already chosen a number of songs for this story from 1971 which burned into my ear and thence my soul as I grew into a teenaged boy : Imagine which I’d just got for Christmas from JD my mum’s 2nd husband, Jig A Jig which I’d mistakenly taken into a music lesson at school, Bad ‘n’ Ruin which became my theme song later on in life, first single purchase The Banner Man, learning how to play the sax with Y Sharp, swooning to Tired Of Being Alone and Morning Has Broken, absolutely loving I Don’t Blame You At All.   All so vivid.  When I look at the Chart rundowns now from that era – you can do it on Official Charts dot com https://www.officialcharts.com/charts/singles-chart/19720109/7501/ – it feels like a blessed time, pre-worry, post-trauma (see My Pop Life #84) just bumbling along in East Sussex without a care in the world.  In theory.

In fact of course I was undergoing my sexual awakening.  Luckily for you dear reader I remember little of this nightmare, and indeed I would not lose my virginity for another two years, but stuff was happening.  In those days sex was almost completely suppressed, despite the hype of the 1960s.  My mum was reading The World Is Full of Married Men by Jackie Collins and there were a few well-thumbed pages in there.  You would find torn pages from a porno mag like Mayfair or Penthouse in a hedge walking along, discarded by some wanker.  The toilets at the train station in Polegate were covered with barely suppressed erections, phone numbers, boasts and pleas.  I shared a bedroom with my brother Paul so wanking in bed was out of the question.  No, this always happened in the bathroom.  Indeed I remember a few years later Simon’s friend Patrick Freyne accusing me of wanking one day as I emerged from the bathroom in St Anne’s Crescent.  Scarring.  But no girl (or boy) had ever touched it in early 1972, even through my trousers.  No, I was an innocent teen, and romantic at that.  Other lads my age – Pete, Conrad, Spark – they were already experimenting with girls in 1972.  Simon too started to go out with the school beauty Kerry Day.  The only girl I liked at school was Sarah Jane.  I did eventually go out with her, but we never had sex.  Sex was rare.

It was all about romance.  Falling in Love.  Holding Hands. Going Out With Each Other.  It was All Terribly Important.  Who Fancied Who.  All that.  There was a group of girls who I’d walk past on the way home from school – I’d catch the train from Lewes to Polegate, then the bus from there to Hailsham town centre and walk home.  On the edge of the estate – now called Town Farm, but dubbed Sin City when we lived there because it housed all the problem families – was a grassy play area and one day a small female child stopped me with an “excuse me?”.  She pointed to an older girl around my age.  “What’s your name? My friend Sharon fancies you”.  Well I told her and can remember almost nothing else but I’m wondering now whether this would have been almost my first sexual kiss, some weeks later I’m guessing, stretching it out a bit.  There was an underpass so the kids wouldn’t get run over, and the kiss was in there.  Was there also a fondling of tit?  Probably.  Maybe. That didn’t burn into my memory like you thought it would.  But I didn’t really fancy Sharon anyway.  It wasn’t a keeper.

My first girlfriend proper was Pam Wicks.  In the year below me, from Seaford.  Lovely girl.  She didn’t take sugar in her tea and persuaded me to give it up.  She came over to Hailsham a few times and spent the night on the settee downstairs, but I was last to bed and we had a little exploratory romp and rumble in the wee small hours.  No sex though.  Both a bit scared I think.  We liked each other a lot, but again it wasn’t destined to last really.  I didn’t love her.  She was like a mate.  We’d tease and joke around a lot.  Listen to music.  I think this must have been about a year later to be fair when I was 15.  Nothing like that happened when I was 14.

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The Chi-Lites in 1971

The song burned into me like all the great music of that era.  The dirty fuzz guitar with the sugar sweet harmonies blew me away, yes, but when lead singer Eugene Record starts that soulful monologue you have to listen.  And when he says, in a perfect rhythm

I keep sayin’ – she’ll be back – but today again I’ve lied

All people of a certain age will sing Waaahhh I see her face everywhere I go.  Magic.

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There are a couple choruses then an outstanding bridge :

Why, oh why
Did she have to leave and go away ? oh yeah
Oh, I’ve been used to havin’ someone to lean on
And I’m lost
Baby, I’m lost

And after another chorus and another bridge the song starts to wind down – but Eugene is not done, oh no.  He’s been sitting on that bench for some time now – a month perhaps – and he’s been thinking it through.  The soulful monologue returns :

As another day comes to an end
I’m lookin’ for a letter or somethin’
Anything that she would send
With all the people I know
I’m still a lonely man
You know, it’s funny
But I thought I had her in the palm of my hand

And then finally, after five minutes of music, he sings.  A cry, a sorrowful cry of pain, of loss.  Jenny’s favourite part of the song.  The line when he says “with all the people that I know I am still a lonely man” was the one that struck me at the time, and still does.

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The single was re-released in the UK in 1975

So why has this song resonated with me so deeply, when I have never sat on a bench and wept for my lost lady love?  Don’t get me wrong, I had a terrible time when Miriam, my first love,  left me behind in 1975 – but I knew exactly where she was, and I would see her many times a week at school and even lived under the same roof that summer because her brother was my dear friend and her mother didn’t want me to lose everything (I did though – for another time).  Have You Seen Her?  Who?  The song came out about six months after my family got back together after a 9-month homeless period – all scattered around in different places, waiting to be re-housed by East Sussex County Council.  Eventually we were offered a council house on Salternes Drive (Sin City) and we’d been there about six – 9 months when this song appeared.  Maybe deep down in the unacknowledged recesses of my gut I’m missing my mother.  My mother as she was before all the breakdowns, hospitalisations, anti-depressants and suicide attempts.  Before the madness.  Before the fall.  Maybe.

But maybe it’s just a great pop song.

Ladies and Gentlemen, The Chi-Lites :

My Pop Life #236 : Superman ft. Bucie – Black Coffee

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Superman ft. Bucie   –   Black Coffee

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I am a cat-man.  I have always had a cat or two or three, and I understand them.  A little. Cat Man Do.  My reward for good behaviour (miaow!) has been to have used up only a third of my 9 lives…  Two I have written about already : Falling Out Of A Van Going At 50 mph On A Scottish Road (see My Pop Life #232 – C’Mon) and Drowning When Drunk At Dawn In A Las Vegas Swimming Pool (see My Pop Life #235 – You’ve Got A Friend).  The third attempt was more recent than these two teenage incidents and will have to be entitled Being Dropped In A Cage From A Boat Into 30 Metres Of Shark-Infested Seawater With No Oxygen Etc.

It was 2010.  It was – in all seriousness – the second time that I had given up acting for a living.  My way this manifests itself is as follows – I call my agent – in this case Oriana Elia – and inform her that I will no longer audition for anything, and will in fact be quite happy if I never work again.  It was a kind of petulance, a kind of release, and a kind of sanity that swept over me that spring.  I cannot remember the details that pushed me over the edge, but within four months I was in Cape Town doing a film with Halle Berry.

But first a little matter of a World Cup.  I won’t write about it here, but Jenny and I have been to every World Cup since USA 1994 when we lived in Los Angeles as a special treat and these adventures are memorialised in My World Cup Blog.

The World Cup in June of 2010 was in South Africa.  While we were in Johannesburg for the latter stages I received word of a job – in South Africa – in July/August.  Their winter, our summer in England.  A straight offer.  Thank you casting director Gail Stevens.  A special lady.  I was back in the game.

I decided to go home for two weeks rather than stay down there, and thus it was for the 2nd time in a month that I arrived in Cape Town in July and checked into the Waterfront Apartments.  It was actually my third time in Cape Town because I’d been filming here in 2006 (see My Pop Life #117) on The Flood, and spent one day off at the Khayelitsha project of our first aider Kerryn Pitt.  My first stop on this visit was to drive out there and see how they were doing.

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Kerryn Pitt

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Table Mountain from Khayelitsha Township

They were doing well.  They still had their World Cup flags flying over the township.  Kerryn was on good form and had been building a Guest House for the project, alongside the orphan’s school & kitchen.  Township Air B’n’B.  We chatted, I took photos and vowed to return.

That night I met the director John Stockwell for a drink. My worries about the script were aired and then turned to more general worries about the film when he asked me to re-write it.  I decided not to get involved at that level.  Perhaps I asked for more money, I truly can’t remember.  It felt like much of it might be improvised.  The schedule was to be improvised, everything was weather dependent so we had to be ready to shoot any scene at any time, and we’d all be working every day.  And there were no rehearsals, so the first time I met Halle Berry was on the first day of filming, down in Simons Town on False Bay.  I’d made a major fluff of my first meeting with another female lead actor –  Sigourney Weaver back in 1991 on Alien 3 (see My Pop Life #171) so this time I had a plan – smile,  make friends, be charming.  Not too difficult because being the first black actress to win an Oscar was completely historic and inspiring and I told her so.  She is gracious and kind and friendly.  It’s going to be fine.  So far so good and my other co-stars Sizwe Msutu, who stayed ashore, Olivier Martinez, Luke Tyler and Mark Elderkin all seemed untroubled by delusions of grandeur and I rather hoped for a decent shoot.

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Me, Halle, Olivier, Sizwe in a dinghy going home

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Luke Tyler & Mark Elderkin

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John Stockwell

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Olivier Martinez

The film by the way remains one of the very worst-reviewed films I’ve ever had the privilege to have been in.  It’s called Dark Tide and it scored a fairly unique 0% on the website Rotten Tomatoes.  But rubbish films can still be good fun to make (and of course the opposite too – good films can be a fucking nightmare on set and off !)

It is set almost entirely on a small boat at sea.  There are six of us on it.  I play a British millionaire who brings his son (Luke) on a shark weekend – Halle is a shark whisperer who owns the boat and whose business is going bust.  Mark played the skipper and Olivier her partner.  Oh.  That makes five.

Anyway.

What is a shark weekend?  Well in South Africa, Mexico, Australia and other areas of the world it is where you rent a boat and climb into a cage and get lowered into the water to watch them up close.  Cage Diving With Sharks.  What could possibly go wrong?

In fact Luke Cresswell, my buddy from Brighton who co-created Stomp along with Steve McNicholas was just down the road in Gansbaai, filming Great Whites from a naturalist’s angle and he generously took me out on my first free afternoon to watch the water.  A preview of what was to come.  What strange coincidences life throws at you, and great to see him.

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Luke on his shark boat

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Luke and Great White Shark off Gansbaai

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And I had a wonderful drive back along the Garden Route to Cape Town at dusk

I’ve written a little about the shark experience, especially the sea-sickness angle in My Pop Life #37 – A Salty Dog.  Halle rented a house nearby with her daughter and nanny,  the rest of us were in apartments on the Cape Town Waterfront and were picked up at 5.45 every morning.  My driver Hans was a large Afrikaaner who resisted stereotype yet was a huge fan of Meatloaf.  We’d have an hour’s drive into the dawn, playing my music, playing his, playing the radio, then into unit base as the light arrived.

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Simons Town, False Bay

Costume change & make-up plus breakfast at unit base then down to the quayside and board the boat V.S. Volante at 8am and start the engine which produced a very particular kind of smell – of oil – then out to sea and shoot all day til the light faded at 6pm.  Six days a week.  Lunch was brought alongside by a rubber dinghy.  We often anchored up near Seal Island, which is where we were that day.

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Green Point at the top was near the Cape Town waterfront. Simon’s Bay was base camp about an hour down the Cape.

I’ll just digress gently and note that while we were filming, guys were chumming the water on either side of the boat.  Throwing bucketfuls of dead fish overboard to attract Great White Sharks in other words.  Then if one came near us we would film with it behind us, or even try and get it to approach the boat.  Some of these were large – the females we were told, some were smaller and whip-flick irritable – these were the juvenile males.  Of course they were.  We were not expected, naturally, to get into the sea with these beasts, we had a stunt crew for all that.  But apparently we only had three sets of oxygen tanks, and they, naturally, were for the stunt crew.

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Seal Island

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On the fateful day in question, it was decided that Luke my son and I would do a scene with skipper Mark just before we go down for our first cage dive.  This involved being fully dressed for scuba diving – masks, fins, weights, tanks.  The tanks weren’t full of oxygen.  They were props.  Fair enough, we weren’t going underwater.  We were doing some chat then climbing into a cage which went up to waist height off the back of the boat.  And cut.  The stunt crew with the real oxygen tanks were at least a 45-minute boat ride away.  Halle and Olivier were inside the Volante resting.  Olivier was actually  affecting a tremendously French couldn’t care less attitude while clearly staying available.  Halle’s favourite.

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Lunch arriving.  Be honest, it isn’t a large boat.  See cage on the stern.

We were shooting off the back.  Sorry, the stern.  As we waited for the camera I looked at the cage, suspended from a frame by a rope and pulley.  We would climb in via a door in the top of the cage.  I noticed something.  “What’s that blue rope?” I asked marine co-ordinator Jason Martin alongside me.  I hadn’t seen it before.  “That’s a safety rope” he answered,

in case the pulley breaks but that isn’t going to happen

Right thanks”  I said.

Luke was sitting on the other side of me and hadn’t heard this exchange.  “Hey Luke” I said, “you see that blue rope there?  That’s to stop the cage from plunging onto the ocean floor when the pulley breaks. Which it won’t“.

Good to know”  he said.

We got into position.  Line-up.  Ran the words.  Camera ready.  Actors ready.  Boom op ready.  Turn over.  Speed.  Mark it.  247 take one.  Crack!  And the stage was ours.  We did the words and climbed into the cage.  The water was quite lively and as Luke climbed down into the cage beside me a huge wave went over our heads. “I’d better hold my breath” I thought.  And the wave stayed there.  And stayed there some more. “Hang on“‘ I thought, “I really need to hold my breath here“.  Then Luke just disappeared upwards through the cage door above us, and so did I, breaking water to a crowd of alarmed and panicked faces looking down, reaching out to take our arms, hauling us back onboard where we sat down in a puddle.

What happened?” I asked.

The pulley snapped”  someone said,  “The safety rope stopped you from dropping down 30 metres onto the sea bed.

I looked round. Sure enough the blue rope was the only thing holding the cage.  There had been no big wave.  Below us was the rocky shelf of Seal Island – not that deep, I had dived in Egypt down to 20 metres.  But that was with oxygen.  Plus the speed we’d have dropped would’ve given us the bends.  And then where the shelf drops into the depths, the underwater cliff edge,  is where the sharks hunt for seals, which is actually why we were anchored there.  You couldn’t drop an anchor onto the ocean floor anyway, the chain wasn’t that long.

Everyone was really shaken up.  John the director was apologising to Luke and I.  People were bringing tea and biscuits.  We would be taken inside and they’d shoot something else.  Drama and panic.  Are you guys OK?  I lit a cigarette.  Luke and I conferred.  We were happy about the blue rope (which isn’t in the photo above I’ve just realised, must’ve been added after that day…) but unhappy about the pulley snapping.

For the rest of the day we were placated.  I think we were both in shock and in the dinghy ride back to shore I said I would speak to my agent.  Film sets are notoriously unsafe spaces in many ways – I remembered the accident on Alien 3 with Linda, Sigourney’s make-up lady – but this seemed to be a many layered accident with plenty of possible ways to die or be seriously injured.  There’s always an insurance angle on films which is often the reason why a film isn’t greenlit – they can’t get a bond.  The fear of the insurance doubling rippled through the production – and I’d like to think there was also a concern that two actors might have been lost, and thus the film, because they wouldn’t have gone back and re-shot everything with two new actors.  Would they?

It was decided that Luke and I wouldn’t do any more work in the water, most of it was going to be done in Pinewood Studios later in August.  But in fact that scene was eventually re-shot a few clicks down the shore from Simonstown, in the sea.  The ghost lingered but we got the scene.

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Sorry babe I’m already happily married

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After this drama a kind of rhythm was established.  The day was based on how seasick we felt, how quickly the ginger basket was emptied of sweets and biscuits and drinks.  Scenes and sharks came and went.  We couldn’t find the right stormy conditions for the final sequence so in the end it was decided to head south and round the Cape of Good Hope into the open Atlantic to get some churning seas.  That was a day of sickness and drama as Olivier (in character) ordered me to sit down as the waves started kicking the boat around and I (in character) refused.  In make up the following morning Halle came to my chair and started whispering in my ear about making up with Olivier because he was still screwing about it, and would I mind apologising to him.  “I was acting a scene” I objected but Halle had my earlobe between her thumb & finger and was gently rubbing an affirmation out of me.  Olivier and I made up but he still insisted that if we did fight, he would win.

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One weekend I invited Halle, Olivier, Luke, Mark and John to the Indlovu Project in Khayelitsha, and we spent a precious couple of hours in the township where the kids danced for us, we were fed and watered and chatted and took photos of each other.  Halle later donated a generous sum to their project and Olivier supplied them with punch bag and some sets of boxing gloves.

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As the film drew to a close whatever feelings we had about the story we were telling was slowly but inevitably being subsumed by the wild beauty around us and one by one we surrendered to the surroundings.  There was an afternoon of behind-the-scenes interviews where we all mucked in and watched each other’s clips.

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Luke holding the screen for Norma Hill-Patton’s interview, Halle Berry watching. I’d worked with Norma  before on ‘Buster’ the train robber film (1986).  Life is long.

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Effortless grace and lucky guy

We wrapped up and I flew back to Brighton and Jenny and Chester and Mimi.  Dark Tide reconvened in the Paddock Tank in Pinewood Studios.  My oxygen tank didn’t work there either when I was inside the cage one afternoon, so I did the pointing to my mouth thing and my guide diver found me and gave me an emergency oxygen feed as we swam to the top of the tank.   It doesn’t count as a life though if you’re counting.  Never in danger.  It was the Paddock Tank where I’d previously shot the underwater sequence in The Boat That Rocked/Pirate Radio in 2006 (see My Pop Life #205).  I was starting to feel like a veteran underwater actor.  I’m not a great swimmer but I have no fear of being underwater despite nearly drowning when 19 –  I learnt to swim in Hornsey Road Baths when I was 25 years old and the first thing they made us do was go underwater and stay there for ten, then twenty seconds.

Halle came out for dinner one night with Norma to meet Jenny and our friend Martina Laird in the Groucho Club.  They both loved her.  She is a real sweetheart who doesn’t pick the best men.  Olivier lasted six years and they have a child together.

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The handsome couple were married 3 years later

All through that summer I was listening to the radio, to the sounds of South Africa.  I didn’t need my comfort music around me for some reason, and delighted in the new sounds of that new nation.  They were obsessed with house music and a fella called Black Coffee.  In 2006 when I’d shot The Flood in Cape Town I became hooked on a song called Mdlwembe or Umdlwembe (see My Pop Life #117) from the Tsotsi soundtrack which actually dates from 2000.  Ten years later it was house music which dominated the airwaves and this DJ in particular who stood head and shoulders above the pack.  His album Home Brewed was released in 2010 and you couldn’t escape from it’s silky rhythms in bars, restaurants, taxis and on the street.

My favourite memory of the shoot was this moment :

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My favourite shot of Halle was this :

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I write this from lockdown in New York City where the numbers suggest that we have been plague central for six weeks.  99% of the citizens wear masks outside in a huge act of compassion to protect the vulnerable and the elderly the diabetics and the asthmatics.  My wife Jenny is one of the latter.  She hasn’t gone out.  I don mask and gloves and stride out to the shops, intrepid and steeled, keeping spatial distance from the other explorers. The shop has its own rules and lines, screens and bagging procedures.  We are at war.  When I get home, the shoes are left in the hallway, the vinyl gloves unpeeled and trashed, soap and water, bleach wipes on all bags, all produce, all shopping, keys, cards.

Death is just out there.   I will trade in my remaining 6 lives for my wife’s.

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the blue rope with the knot which saved us

My Pop Life #235 : You’ve Got A Friend – James Taylor

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You’ve Got A Friend   –   Carole King

close your eyes and think of me

*

I wrote this diary excerpt when I was hitch-hiking around North America with my friend Simon (referenced in My Pop Life #130).   We celebrated my 19th birthday in Santa Fe with tequila shots, salt & lime til dawn, a reasonably appropriate celebration I think, then hitch-hiked for a couple of days through Navajo Nation and the stunning red rock towers of Monument Valley eventually getting to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon where we pitched our tent.  Then a wonderful moment happened.  The VW camper van next door had two lovely American fellas our age.  Darrell & Sam struck up conversation.   They were going to Las Vegas too – but via Zion National Park, and Bryce Canyon.  Four wonderful days and nights, backgammon and weed and music as I recall.   Across the desert.  Then we finally got to Las Vegas.  No indication of the drama which was to unfold.  Now read on dot dot dot

*

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Thursday July 2nd 1976 9pm

So here we are at last – in the gambling capital of the world. Everything is open 25 hours a day, and there’s only one thing to do – spend money.  Characteristically, Simon and I decide to avoid doing that, and manage fairly well.  We arrive in Las Vegas mid-afternoon and check into a hotel on the Strip which offers us “casino packages“.  You can find these deals all over the city and for 100 miles outside – free meal tickets, free drinks, free chips and nickels and free souvenirs – like miniature one-armed bandits (I shamelessly acquire one).

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After a magnificent cold shower, we brave the heat – 110 in the shade – and armed with hundreds of “good deals” we move out.  Fourteen hours later, we stare blankly at one another from our beds, shattered and amazed.  Now I really know what it’s like to have a night on the town, and watch the orangey-pink dawn at 5.30 in the morning over Sunrise Mountain.  I know what the town is too.  The whole of our stay here is like a dream – Vegas is a very unreal and surreal place, a neon city which becomes very beautiful at night.  The Stardust, Caesar’s Palace, Sahara and The Dunes have the most spectacular 100-foot neon displays on the boulevard advertising their casinos.  And inside, the sight that hits you between the eyes is also out of a dream.  In the large casinos there are literally acres of fruit machines, rows of blackjack tables, roulette, craps and baccarat.  Watching it all go on is an entertainment in itself – the people here are incredible, ranging from very rich, slick tuxedos and evening dresses through middle-aged T-shirts and fat women mindlessly feeding machines, to scruffy jeans and sneakers.  They’re all here to feed Vegas in one form or another with their money.  The fruit machines which surround everything and populate every bar gobble up nickels, dimes, quarters & silver dollars, and occasionally, with a loud noise, spit some back.  It is noticeable that the machines are very noisy when they pay out, and very quiet when they’re emptying your pockets – thus if a casino has enough machines, somebody somewhere will be winning noisily giving the impression that the machines are constantly paying out.

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The noise inside a casino is unbelievable – there are six or seven different layers -soft music, bells, chinking coins, rattles, dealer’s calls, very loud weird noises and the constant sound of money.  Money is the only criteria here – the only one. You are either rich, or poor and that is it – you are not good-looking, nice, friendly, nasty or affected – just rich or poor.  We are poor.  But we have a great time.  Although it is an entertainment watching the types of people and the neon and the roulette, you can only watch for two minutes then it sucks you in and you are not in control.  Luckily we have enough free nickels & tokens to play with and we spend very little of our own money.  And in fact, we do very well, walking into a casino, getting a bunch of free tokens, winning, and then walking out two bucks up, resisting the urge to gamble with it.

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We get a free stew and endless beers at Mr Sy’s, a hot dog and coffee at Foxy’s, nickels at The Sahara, nothing at Honest John’s, champagne and tokens at El Morocco, and nickels and endless champagne at King 8 which is connected to our hotel and thus gives us Good Deals.  The casinos own smaller casinos, hotels & snack bars and also have deals going with gas stations so that the whole city is a web which catches you wherever you happen to be in it. But I love it and I am definitely coming back here with some money.  [And I did – see My Pop Life #230 deja vu country songs in Vegas].  What better way to lose money – it is basically worthless stuff anyway – and the attitude of play the game easy come easy go is a healthy one – it is how money should be treated.  What a place !

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By midnight we are totally blammed on champagne from King 8, where we have been insanely giggling for two hours, imagining going back to the hotel for our traveller’s cheques and gambling everything, being in the limelight at the centre of the game at Caesar’s Palace for half and hour, then thumbing back to DC to stay at the Furth’s while we wait for September 19th, broke.  We imagined the story :

Well, we got as far as Las Vegas…

And believe me, it would be so easy to do. We are tottering along the Strip towards Caesar’s harbouring the sexy rich lady fantasy when we are picked up by two girls in a jeep, unattractive and poor [who need us with our fake IDs to go and buy whisky for them the legal age being 21].  By now however, we are helpless and “nobody knows” – that is to say the conversations are

“Where do you want to go?”       ” don’t know”

“What do you want to do?”        “don’t know”

“What’s your name?”             “don’t know, etc”

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We smoke some grass and find ourselves in a kiddies playground on slides and climbing bars.  The stars are stupendous.  We decide to go for a swim, yet upon reaching a pool everyone denies that they agreed.  We head once again for Caesar’s Palace.  It is enormous inside, very plush and attractive and fairly crowded even though it is by now about 2.30am.  We then go to The MGM another enormous casino with fountains and mirrors in the ceilings and tuxedoed croupiers.  Trying to park, we crash into a brand new Porsche and subsequently spend the next hour in the MGM car park arguing with a reactionary bastard from Denver, waiting for the police, and pouring whisky onto each other’s heads. [None of the drivers present were sober it has to be recorded].

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We eventually get into The MGM at 4am and walk about zombie-like, staring with blank faces at the glitter and cash around us. We go all the way to the back of the casino and there is a huge shopping mall with very expensive diamonds, minks of orange hue, fox-furs and absurd paintings.  These shops are where you spend your winnings, all owned by the casino, so naturally they get all your money back.

Of course!

After an hour or so of total surreal weirdness (we are here, now, doing this…) we become aware of a sensation within each one of us that we identify as hunger. Breakfast!

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We stagger into yet another casino as the dawn spreads over the pinkish sky above Sunrise Mountains, and the neon sign outside The Dunes is switched off until the next sunset.  A 77 c breakfast of eggs, hash browns, bacon and coffee is eaten in total darkness because the electrical operators are going slow – giving the casinos half hour blackouts every now and then : naturally we have arrived in that half hour.  I am at the stage where I could believe anything, and frequently do.  Still mindlessly tipping whisky down our throats we decide again to go for a swim, so everyone changes and meets at the pool in the girl’s hotel.

The night ends badly though as one of the girls falls off the diving board onto the concrete and is badly bruised, and I come as close to death as I have ever been, or will ever be likely to without actually dying.  In 9 feet of water I suddenly lose confidence and my muscles refuse to work.  I sink like a stone, don’t touch the bottom and come up, gasping for breath and immediately sink again, swallowing water.  With horror I realise that I am now drowning and there is nothing I can do about it.  Some distant memory of “when you go down the third time you don’t come up“.  I come up for the second time and Simon recognises that I am in big trouble.  [Later he tells me that he forgot the diving girl’s name and rather than shout “OI” which he felt was rude, he dived in to get me himself].  I see him swimming towards me through mouthfuls of water and gulps of air as my arms and legs are thrashing about – I don’t want to drown, I really don’t.  It seems to take Simon hours to reach me and then I immediately grab him somewhere, anywhere and we both go down, me for the third time, him for the first.  For one horrible moment I am so close to dying that I can feel it, a cold presence, a ghastly sensation.  I see angels I see a coffin flying back to England on a plane,  a school assembly where my name is read out, a funeral But this is not my time and we both come up, and somehow Simon takes me to the edge.  I cling gratefully to the side, gasping painfully and fast, but alive.  We are both in a bad state of shock, and the girls drive us back to our room, once we have partially recovered.  We eventually sleep at 11am, through til 7 in the evening when we get up, go and eat, and return.  It is now 10pm in the evening – we plan on leaving very early tomorrow to avoid the ridiculously hot weather, thumbing to Los Angeles.

The last 30 hours are a blur, a dream, an unreality lit by neon and flashing lights, a whirl of chinking coins, rolling dice, aces, jacks and queens, oranges and plums, tuxedos diamonds champagne and a brush with death.

*

Simon saved my life I have no doubt about that.  Rather odd that I didn’t write that phrase into the diary at the time.  Shock.  Even two days later, writing about the day – I reckon this was written once we’d arrived in Los Angeles at Nick Carr’s parent’s place in Monterey Park.  The part I missed is the part I almost always missed in the diary of that road trip – the sexual exploits.  Once we’d got back to the hotel it was decided that Simon and Diving Girl would take the room, and Ralph and short-haired girl would wait in the Jeep. I think we kissed for a bit but that was it, we didn’t really fancy each other.  After two hours I got to crash out when Diving Girl came out and the girls drove off waving.   We never saw them again. 

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I’m writing this on Monday 20th April 2020 in Brooklyn, the epicentre of the coronavirus covid 19 pandemic with death all around us, hundreds of people every day pass over, old people, young people, nurses, cooks, cleaners, bus drivers, policemen and women, grandparents, asthmatics, care-home workers, immigrants, musicians, retired insurance brokers, lawyers, teachers, doctors, physios. 

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Jenny my wife is asthmatic and doesn’t go out at all.  She isn’t taking any risks.  I do the shopping and the bins, the prescriptions, the bread, the cheese the oranges.  We have both become obsessed with oranges.  I have disposable gloves and a mask which purports to be N95 but actually isn’t I don’t think.  I can smell weed when I cycle past the youth.  We line up outside Trader Joe six feet apart and go into a quiet supermarket walking gently around sourcing our priority produce, then pack out bags ourselves and walk the Citibike back home with the absurdly heavy shopping, remove shoes before entering, unpeel vinyl gloves into the trash, wash hands thoroughly, take bleach wipes and disinfect every single item as it comes out of the shopping bag, disinfect the handles, the taps, the phone, the glasses, the mask, my eyeballs.

We’ve been back to Las Vegas numerous times since then, but I never seriously took up gambling as a past-time.  See My Pop Life #230.  I still live a charmed life, and have at least one other serious near-death experience to relate.  South Africa 2010.  I’ll do it next. 

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The LP Tapestry by songwriting genius Carole King (Natural Woman, It Might As Well Rain Until September, The Locomotion, Pleasant Valley Sunday, Up On The Roof, Will You Love Me Tomorrow) is one of the greatest ever made, and this – You’ve Got A Friend – is the stand-out song for me.  Many have covered it – notably Donny Hathaway & James Taylor, and I have chosen Mr Taylor’s sweet cover since that was the song Simon and I would have listened to in 1974-5.   It helps I guess that when I met Jenny and we started dating, one of the things that made me fall in love with her was that she could sign the lyrics to this song, and still can.  But today this song is for Simon, my closest friend, my dearest companion, my life-saver, my brother.

My Pop Life #234 : I Remember You – Frank Ifield

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I Remember You   –   Frank Ifield

When my life is through
And the angels ask me to recall
The thrill of it all, then I will tell them
I remember you, ooh

 

I was born in June 1957 in Cambridge.   I don’t have the date of my Christening but I am told by Dad that it was in Downing College Chapel.  There is a photograph of the family outside, with most of his family, and Mum’s sister Valerie.  The older lady next to mum is their landlady in Cambridge who was very happy when told that Mum was pregnant “It’s been a long time since there were children in this house”. 

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Grandad & Granma Brown holding Helen’s hand, Mum tucked behind, behind her Pam and Pauline. Tall guy is Reg, married to Pam, then Horace with the moustache my other Grandad. The lady next to Mum is their landlady, and in front of her is dear auntie Jessie, then it’s Dad holding me and Mum’s sister Valerie next to him!

Dad had four sisters, Pauline, Pam Jessie and Mollie, all older than him.  Mollie wasn’t there.  Mum had one sister, Valerie, who Dad had walked out with before Mum.  Valerie turned out to be gay many years later, after a marriage to Uncle Keith (see My Pop Life #49).  It’s quite remarkable to see that many people travelled from Portsmouth to Cambridge.  Peter, Pauline’s husband was taking the photo.  Mum’s mum, nan, Ruby wasn’t there. No idea why.

I turned one year old in 1958 and dad graduated in English from Downing College and we all moved back to Portsmouth.  My first memory of childhood was related earlier in My Pop Life #12Rubber Ball, at my dad’s parents in Manner’s Road,  Fratton.  This current memory comes from at least a year later when I was around five years old.   We lived in a terraced house in Hyde Park Road, Southsea – the front door stepped right out onto the street – if you turned right it went up to Commerical Road, if you turned left which Paul and I always did it went to the bomb debris.  There was a small garden at the back.

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These are Dad’s sisters Pauline and Jessie and their families. Mum & Dad are standing at the back.  Me front central (it’s my blog!) Paul is looking down in front of Dad’s parents. Somewhere in Portsmouth I imagine.

I remember very little about this period of my life.  Paul would have been born just after I turned two years old.  I cannot but wonder where he was during this story.  Perhaps he was asleep upstairs in a cot ?  He would have been three.  Later I recall us playing down the street in the bomb debris site left over from World War 2 – yes even in 1962 there were these bombed out houses, piles of brick and rubble and we loved messing about there, pretending to be soldiers or explorers.  Of course they were dangerous, but it was a different time. Kids just played outside unattended for hours.

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Wendy was a cousin who lived with Nan. She’s holding Paul. We’re all sitting on Dad in the back garden.

The bombing of Portsmouth on the 10th January 1941 is recalled in this People’s History of the Second World War.  My Mum’s dad Horace was a volunteer auxiliary policeman in Pompey during this time and was often scouting on the roof of the Guildhall for unexploded bombs.  Portsmouth was a major target for the Germans because it was and still is the headquarters of the British Navy.

One day there was a very heavy prolonged bout of rain and water started to come into our house, via the ceiling.  Lots of water.  Pots and pans were placed under the drips which became steady streams of water.  It was incredibly dramatic.  Eventually there was so much water coming out of the ceilings of the house that Mum and I went into the garden, where it was still raining, but less wet than inside!   Maybe it was a burst pipe?!?

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I started going to the local school aged 5.  Cottage Grove Juniors.  We had a gill of milk every day which is an ancient measurement equal to a quarter of a pint.

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I’m assuming that I’m in school uniform here, carrying Paul. Is that evidence of the flood on the wall?

We drew. We played. We sang.  We learned things.  Then one day there was a medical alert.  Some children in the class had worms. In the early sixties one of the panic illnesses for children was worms.   They’re a gastrointestinal parasite which comes in various forms, tapeworms, hookworms, others.  My mum collected me from school one day and they explained, or gave her a note.

When we got home Mum explained to me that when I went to the toilet, I wasn’t to flush, because she wanted to check to see if I had the parasite.  I have absolutely no idea how she could tell but at the age of five you just agree.  Later I went upstairs to the bathroom, did a decent enough poo and pulled the chain automatically without thinking.  When I came onto the landing Mum was waiting there, livid.  “Why did you pull the chain?”  she demanded.  “Sorry mum I forgot” I cried, expecting a clonk.  CLONK.  I got a fourpenny one around the side of my head which toppled me over and straight down the stairs to the first landing.  I cannot remember if it hurt.  Mum was absolutely horrified.  She came and gathered me up and we went to the kitchen where some form of treat was administered.  She felt guilty and scared.  Checked me for cuts bruises and breaks.  Nothing.  Then she said “Let’s go and see Watch With Mother shall we?”  This was strange because now I was at school I always missed the programme, which went out at 1.30pm every afternoon : Andy Pandy, Bill & Ben and Rag, Tag & Bobtail.  I’d watched it all through nursery.  It felt like another treat.

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The television was in the front room and we walked down the corridor and I sat on the settee.  Mum put the television on.  It took a while to warm up.  Then a white dot and there, in black and white, was Andy Pandy.  You could see the strings on the puppet but it didn’t matter.  Andy looked like a girl and had a strange crooked smile.  I watched it, with mother.

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Andy Pandy and Teddy

I can clearly recall the feeling of being treated suddenly with kid gloves.  She was attentive and careful, and I realised that she hadn’t intended to knock me down the stairs.  She was hugging me.  I was grateful.  I didn’t really know what had happened but it felt significant.

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Bill and Ben and little weed

We watched Bill and Ben, the Flowerpot Men after that.  “flobalob” they said to each other, “flobalob“, accompanied as ever by Little Weed.  I think she was a dandelion, and an early example of sexism for a five year old boy.  There were plenty of others.

The street we lived on – Hyde Park Road – doesn’t exist anymore.  It, and the bomb debris sites further to the south were all demolished and blocks of flats built there.  I will ask my Dad if he can remember the street name and area.  It was Southsea I think.

*Correct – Dad remembered the street name.

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The song “I Remember You” by Frank Ifield was one of Mum’s favourites that year.   He was an Australian who moved back to the UK from Sydney and this was the second biggest seller in the UK that year, 1962.  Written by the great lyricist Johnny Mercer (and about Judy Garland apparently) with Victor Scherzinger’s music it has a country flavour and a continually interesting melody, which features hints of Ifield’s yodel, all the rage at the time.  Love Me Do by The Beatles was released in 1962 and got to number 17 in the charts.  When Frank’s tour got to Liverpool Brian Epstein approached him to put the band on as support and thus it was that The Beatles’ first few gigs outside of Liverpool were supporting Frank Ifield in Peterborough & other places.  There is a bootleg of them singing this song out there.

Hands up who remembers The WoodentopsSpotty Dog ??

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Goodbye.   Say goodbye children.

 

 

My Pop Life #233 : Big Science – Laurie Anderson

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Big Science   –   Laurie Anderson

Ooo coo ooo coo coo it’s cold outside
Ooo coo ooo coo coo. Don’t forget your mittens

Hey pal! How do I get to town from here?
And he said:
Well just take a right where they’re going to build that new shopping mall
Go straight past where they’re going to put in the freeway
Take a left at what’s going to be the new sports center
And keep going until you hit the place where
They’re thinking of building that drive-in bank

You can’t miss it. And I said: This must be the place

*

March 24th 2020.  Brooklyn, New York.  Covid-19 shutdown.  I receive an email from Town Hall, a public treasure, a concert hall in midtown with a storied history of suffragettes and civil rights where we’ve seen Ry Cooder, Utopia, Taylor Mac and others and where I was due to see The Chieftains last week before we all got sent to our rooms.   Lovely venue.

The email announced – like so many these days – that we could now watch STUFF online.  There aren’t enough hours in the day believe me, but this one caught myne eyne.  It was a premiere of a Laurie Anderson show there from 2018 called ‘Things I Lost In The Flood‘.  I fancied it and checked with Jen – so did she.   Then as 7pm started to roll around her two sisters Mandy and Lucy Face-Timed and since they are each other’s sanity and joy I donned the headphones and watched alone, at a social distance 😉

*

Golden cities. Golden towns
And long cars, in long lines and great big signs
And they all say: Hallelujah. Yodelayheehoo
Every man for himself. Ooo coo coo
Golden cities. Golden towns. Thanks for the ride

*

It was astounding of course.  She always is.  She told us a true story of the Hurricane Sandy event in New York 2012 when Laurie’s basement in downtown Manhattan was flooded by seawater and when she went to examine the damage a few days later as the water subsided, pretty much everything down there – projectors, slides, film, photographs, paintings, screens, books, instruments, tapes, technology of various kinds, ways of producing electronic noise including changing the sound of the human voice, files, sculptures, notes, ideas, operas, plays, computers and printers – were destroyed.  Salt water will do that.  After a couple of days she realised that having a list of everything that was there – which she had in another location – was actually better than having the things in the basement.  So she read the list and made a show.  It covered her entire career pretty much, from O Superman which she discussed as being permanently prescient

This is the hand, the hand that takes
Here come the planes
They’re American planes. Made in America
Smoking or non-smoking?

through to Habeus Corpus, a project at The Armoury in 2016 in collaboration with British human rights charity Reprieve.  I’m a member and supporter of Reprieve and meet occasionally with the founder Clive Stafford-Smith when he comes through New York on his way to Guantanamo to meet clients.  He and Reprieve have been responsible for the release of more than 80 Gitmo detainees to date, one of which was Mohammed el Gharani who featured in Habeus Corpus. As he sat in his house in Africa a camera recorded him and the image was beamed back to The Armoury where it was projected onto a huge, Lincoln Memorial-sized statue.  Laurie described how people who visited the exhibit would realise that there was a camera in the ceiling looking down at the statue so that Mohammed would be able to tell if he should move a hand slightly and so on.  They would stand in the light at the feet of the statue and look up at where they felt he could see them and they all mouthed the same thing

I’m sorry

Laurie told us it was the most moving moment of her artistic life so far.  She also talked a little about her husband Lou Reed (who died in October 2013 while Jenny was doing Julius Caesar at St Anne’s Warehouse in Dumbo) and how he would name her male characters.

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Lou Reed & Laurie Anderson in New York 2008

For example,  ‘Fenway Bergamot‘, one of Laurie’s signature male alter-ego creations who told us in a deep bass voice that a woman’s name is her first name, because she is liable to lose her second name and get it lopped off if she gets married.  Or divorced.  And your mother’s maiden name is so forgotten and hidden that it becomes a password to all of your information.

Is this Fenway Bergamot ?

Then Laurie told of how she worked in Greece on the opening ceremony of the Olympics there trying to find meaning from the ceiling and pieces of the Parthenon.  How she did a performance of Mister Heartbreak in Tokyo and learned phonetically her entire performance in Japanese, then discovered after the first show that the guy she had learned it from had a stutter.

All of this is presented deadpan, with electronic interludes and accompaniment.  I always find it mesmerising, funny, and intriguing.

The concert is here on YouTube in the Town Hall Archive.  Even long-time fans like me can’t keep up with her output so impossibly fecund is she, so there’s always more to discover. It is two hours long, no interval, but she explains why, and there is a pause button.

Oh and here is Laurie talking about her relationship with Lou Reed published in Rolling Stone just after he died:

https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/laurie-andersons-farewell-to-lou-reed-a-rolling-stone-exclusive-243792/ 

*

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My first exposure to Laurie Anderson was the alarming single O Superman which was championed by DJ John Peel (see My Pop Life #205) and astoundingly reached number 2 in the UK Charts in 1981.  Inspired by the Iran hostage events in 1979-80, the over-arching theme of the piece and much of her work is violence.  American violence.

‘Cause when love is gone, there’s always justice
And when justice is gone, there’s always force
And when force is gone, there’s always Mom. Hi Mom!

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I bought Laurie Anderson’s LP Big Science in 1982 and played it a great deal.  That year I was still with Moving Parts Theatre Company about whom I wrote in My Pop Life #18 but who certainly deserve another chapter or two in this blog.  I’d been working with them since autumn of 1981 and already done two tours.  The company was formed by Ruth McKenzie & Rachel Feldberg as a radical idealistic vehicle to reach the young.  The summer of ’81 remember there had been riots in Brixton, Liverpool, Southall, Birmingham.  Margaret Thatcher milk-snatcher was waging war on the workers and after her actual war in Las Malvinas won her a second term she would take on the Miner’s Union (see My Pop Life #185).  It was a violent time.   A time for taking sides.

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I shaved my head and bought braces for the racism show. Of course I did.  But see the tell-tale Roxy Music tee

*

You know, I think we should put some mountains here
Otherwise, what are the characters going to fall off of?
And what about stairs? Yodellayheehoo. Ooo coo coo ooo

*

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Saffron Myers and Anita Lewton summer 82

That summertime I was on a tour of the drop-in centres and youth clubs of the UK (once the World Cup in Spain had finished he emphasised in italics) with a musical play about racism in our country called The Empire Strikes Back co-written by myself and Anita Lewton, a broad-brush-stroke punchy slapstick history of the United Kingdom in the style of 7:84 Theatre Company or one of those early 80s angry gangs.  We drove to Leicester one day in our white Transit van, did the show in a school in the morning, had lunch then did it again at a drop-in centre in the afternoon.  From being a white socialist-feminist theatre company run by women, we had become a multi-racial socialist-feminist theatre company run by women by drafting in two black actors.  Fodder.  Tokenism.  Genuine attempt to do the right thing.  We all had a vote because it was, like Joint Stock a few years later, a genuine Collective, but like all collective activity some voices carry more authority than others.

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In Yorkshire on tour, with Courtney the drumming accountant

Courtney wasn’t even an actor.  He could do it all right.  No, he was an accountant who could play the drums who’d answered the ad.  Big Chas’N’ Dave fan.  He had a really sweet temperament and he needed one.  We got a pretty hot reception in some towns, and our reaction was always the same :

let’s sit down and talk…

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Ken, Saffron, Rachel, me in rehearsal 1982

Ken was a rasta african Londoner, and was also phlegmatic about other people’s ignorance.  But how did these fellas feel inside?  I can guess.  Scarred.  My wife Jenny toured a few years later with Red Ladder (then run by Rachel Feldberg!) and Theatre Centre and got chased out of clubs in Newcastle and other areas because of the multi-racial nature of their company.  It goes deep.  And there’s no excuse for racism.  And I do not forgive it.  It is a choice in the end.

So there was a show, followed by a discussion -“Thank you very much, now, don’t move, because, er, we’d like to come and talk to you about what you’ve just seen and what you feel about it so if you’d just get yourselves into six small groups and we’ll go one to a group“….and this way the social workers and teachers LOVED US and we got booked up and down the country, and we all got our Equity Cards.  Earned our stripes.  So anyway, that evening we all (?) went to see an experience (a play) by the local youth.  Who were we?  Saffron, Ken,  Courtney, me and Rachel probably.  And Ruth?  We had to get on a mini bus in the centre of town and were driven to a dark street where we were hustled by masked security past barbed wire down into a basement.  A small ‘theatre’ with rows of seats – we were given a wrapped sweet as we entered and found on unwrapping it that it was raw meat.  Then ‘Born, Never Asked’ (track 5 on Big Science) pumped out of the speakers

It was a large room. Full of people. All kinds
And they had all arrived at the same building
At more or less the same time
And they were all free. And they were all
Asking themselves the same question:
What.     Is Behind.     That Curtain?

*

Cue electronica

and the show began.  I think it was The People Show number 78.  Pretty mad, pretty great.  The folks who’d done it were memorialised in my diary so impressed was I with this event.  Brendan, Liam and Robert “etc”.

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The name Mike Figgis at the top there, who went on to be a top film director after working with The People Show, the diary written in my childish 25-year old hand

I was particularly obsessed with Laurie Anderson at this time and had a chance to exercise that obsession when she came to London later in 1982 (or was it 1983?) and performed live at Hammersmith Odeon – a show called United States I-IV which was simply astounding and remains one of the top live musical live experiences of my life.  The original multi-media experience, it includes all of Big Science in slightly different forms.

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Laurie showcased her vocal effects box on O Superman and other songs like From The Air and Let X = X.   Also unforgettably a she played a glowing violin with a bow made of tape on which was recorded a phrase.  She could play it fast or slow, pitch high or low.  It was both funny and astoundingly good at the same time.  Was that Blue Lagoon?  Can’t remember.  I must have gone with dear Mumtaz.  Laurie is a genius raconteur – part of her multi-media brilliance – and she also told a story in her matter-of-fact-yet-faintly-amused voice about how Washington D.C. is the capital of the United States.  At the time the English colonial army were headquartered in Philadelphia, but in the British Empire at that time, soldier’s pay was according to lines of Latitude.  The officers realised that if they moved their base camp 125 miles south into the marshes of the Potomac River, their wages would increase.

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Here’s a man who lives a life of danger
Everywhere he goes, he stays – a stranger
Howdy stranger, mind if I smoke? And he said:
Every man, every man for himself
Every man, every man for himself
All in favour say aye

Big Science. Hallelujah. Big Science. Yodelayheehoo

As a result of this mind-bending, hilarious show I stayed faithful to Laurie across the years, but never managed to catch another live show.   At some point in the 80s I made an ansaphone message on a cassette (oh those cassettes were so cool!) which would click on with Laurie’s pre-computerised semi-automatic delivery :

Hi. I’m not home right now
But if you want to leave a message
Just start talking at the sound of the tone 

which cut into Fats Domino singing Ain’t That A Shame.  Yes, I bothered to do that.

The follow-up LP to Big Science was called Mister Heartbreak and had songs like Sharkey’s Day and Blue Lagoon (which I A-listed for Songs Which Quote Shakespeare on the Song Bar a few weeks ago), then United States I-IV was released unbeknown to me, then Home Of The Brave which I did know about and bought.  Homeland with the Kronos Quartet is the most recent work that I’m aware of. Never disappointing.

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I was invited, via Reprieve, to see Habeus Corpus at the Armoury in 2016.  Dagnabbit turns out I was working in Virginia on ‘Turn’ that day.  So Jenny took our nephew Thomas the singer and they met Laurie afterwards.  Apparently she is really lovely.   I knew she was.  She inspired Tom to write a song.  Before I forget, here is a link to Reprieve’s website on their work getting folk out of Guantanamo.  Most of them have been there over 18 years without charge, taxi drivers, kitchen workers, all sold to the US Govt by agents of darkness.  None of them terrorists.

https://reprieve.org.uk/topic/guantanamo-bay/

I keep going back to this Big Science LP though.  It was played up the wazoo in 1982 and beyond, especially the title track.  Yodelayheehoo.  But live Laurie is the thing.  If you ever get the chance, buy the ticket.  And hey.  Look after yourselves out there.

So hold me, Mom, in your long arms
So hold me, Mom, in your long arms
In your automatic arms. Your electronic arms
In your arms
So hold me, Mom, in your long arms
Your petrochemical arms. Your military arms
In your electronic arms

My Pop Life #232 : C’mon – Man

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C’mon   –   Man

it’s better than doin’ nothing
it’s better than sittin’ round thinking of yourself
Get up !  c’mon
Get up…c’mon 

*

The summer of 1973.  I’m thinking right now it was the most carefree moment of my entire life.  Just turned 16.  Just finished my ‘O’ Levels.  Hardest exams ever, but they were done.  Free.  In a band.  Happy.  Just happy to smoke dope, drink beer, listen to music, chat to friends.  My family was Ok, by which I mean no crisis for the moment, but I didn’t spend much time there anymore.  My friends and family were in Lewes, 25 miles away.  Sixth form coming up – a long way off, with no exams for two whole years.  A-levels were the distant horizon.  Let’s face it, my recollections are fuzzy, and so are the photographs….

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No information about this – maybe 16, maybe 17 in Hailsham, East Sussex. Youth.

Then it was summer holidays.  I had tickets to Reading Festival, as advertised in Melody Maker with some of my favourite groups –  Rod Stewart & The Faces (who I’d seen the year before My Pop Life #128), The Sensational Alex Harvey Band and Status Quo among others.

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Before that treat were lazy hazy days in East Sussex and a holiday up in Scotland with Simon Korner’s family.  They’d rented a cottage on The Isle of Arran…in a little village called Lochranza on the north coast.   Simon and I decided to hitch-hike up from Lewes.  Would we make the last ferry from Ardrossan in Ayrshire?  Would we even get there?

Simon had emerged as a close friend earlier that year when I’d stayed with his family in St Henry’s Road while Mum was in hospital.  Nerves they called it.  I wrote a little bit about it in My Pop Life #64 ‘Fresh Garbage’.

I think it was 1973 when Simon became my best friend.  We both had other friends of course.  He had Mathew Ford, Chris Clark and Patrick Freyne, one of the year above boys.  I had Conrad Ryle and Martin Cooper in particular, and soon, Andy Holmes.  But I think Simon and I liked each other kind of unreservedly already.

Simon and I hitched up in late July and got to the ferry terminal in Ardrossan at about 10pm.  The ferry was not there, but the gangplank was, so we unrolled out sleeping bags and slept on it.  Woken at dawn by seagulls and the sun, and caught the ferry across to the island. Arran.  It’s one of those places that looks spectacular from every angle.

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The crossing of the Firth of Clyde was an hour, and breakfast was available on board.  We were scruffy and unwashed of course, but that was the fashion in 1973 for teenage boys.  Maybe it still is.  The town of Brodick welcomed us and upon perusing our handy map (no phones then kids) found the road out north to Lochranza and stuck out our thumbs.  A yellow ex-GPO transit van pulled over after about 30 minutes, they were going our way, perfect.

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Two fellas up front, Simon and I were in the back of the van with our rucksacks amid a heap of random rubbish, a mattress, papers, and a football which I sat on against the side of the van.  It was an hour’s journey more or less.  As we started a long gentle downhill road from Sannox to Lochranza they sped up somewhat – they could see nothing ahead for a mile – and then, remembering that we couldn’t see out of the windows really, apart from glimpses through the front window – something extraordinary happened.

I felt the side of the van disappear behind me as the doors I was leaning on opened and I started to fall, ever so slowly backwards out of the van and into the air towards the road.  I distinctly remember thinking, because I had the time to do so, that it felt like I was doing some kind of James Bond stunt in slow motion and perhaps if

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I hit the ground with a thump and instantaneously went into fast forward backward somersaults once twice thrice four times before the absurd circus act stopped abruptly and all was still.  I was on my back at the side of the road, head facing downhill legs up.  I dare not move in case of pain. I would lie there for a while until I felt braver.  There was grass on my right, road on my left where my hand was.  I moved my fingers one at a time, then my wrist, my arm, twitched my shoulder. The right hand and arm.  The feet, one at a time.  Nothing was broken.

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I could hear a voice behind me shouting my name.  I didn’t move yet.  Simon got there first and then the two ashen-faced scotsmen.  They helped me stand up, checked that all was in working order.  My trousers were ripped right across my arse.  That was about it.  Everyone was shaken, disbelieving.  It was a kind of miracle that I didn’t land on my head because to quote Johnny Moped “Crack afore the skull, blow the skull open, OK?” * The van reversed back up the hill and I got into the front seat.  By the time we got to Lochranza I felt lucky, indestructible, magic.  The fellas dropped us off and – according to Simon because I do not recall this – we both ran up the fell opposite the house because we were the first there.

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The others arrived – Shirley, Joe, Jess and Shirley’s friend Noreen Ford and it was decided to call a nurse the next day because there appeared to be some of the road left in my buttocks.   She was a cheery young woman who cleaned it up and put a dressing on the rather sore area.  I should note that I didn’t fancy her.  She came every day for about four days as I recall.  She would arrive in uniform then briskly announce her task “Good morning Ralph, I’ve come to change the dressing on your bem”  You have to read it in a Scottish Accent!  At some point around here Martin Cooper arrived.  He was a proper carrot-top redhead with pale skin and blue eyes.  We’d become friends via the school football team, and subsequent visits to The Goldstone Ground in Brighton to see The Albion.  Martin wasn’t like the rest of my friends – he didn’t take drugs, or grow his hair, or play records.  He and I would become political allies in the 6th form when we became Head and Deputy Head Boy.   I wrote about him a bit in My Pop Life #70 : The Stylistics.  Simon had long fair hair and brown eyes, I was bushy-haired with grey/green/blue eyes and slightly darker skinned than both which is odd, perhaps.  Simon tells me that he felt slightly challenged by Coops’ presence now, as if competing for my brotherly love.

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Goat Fell in the mist and the ferry to Claonaig leaving Lochranza

Coops and I it was who made the journey to Goat Fell, hitching back up that same road to Brodick Castle then walking through the grounds and up the rocky path.  It was a stiff climb but stunning at the top.  Highest point of the island, which is all peaks.  We shared a mighty joke at the top when we noticed a man walking up the path, no sweat, perfect clothes, not a hair out of place. When he reached the summit – we were on the east side by now looking at southern Scotland – he stopped and gazed at the horizon with strange purpose then pfffft opened a can of Tizer as if he was in some cheesy advert.  Fuck me it was hilarious.  We had to duck behind a boulder to laugh hysterically.

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Lochranza, Isle of Arran

Other days we went onto the beach.  Clear water, so much clearer than the English Channel in Sussex.  We took the ferry north to Claonaig one day on the Mull of Kintyre then took it back to Lochranza.  I suspect we smoked some dope and read books too.  Simon was reading Sons and Lovers by D.H Lawrence.  I cannot remember what I was reading but I was into Dostoyevsky at the time.  It was all bliss.  We talked about the incident, and Simon felt that the van had been going about 50 mph, which would account for my absurd rolling backwards down the hill.  I don’t remember any aches or bruises – apart from the obvious – but maybe time heals.  Ot maybe I just bounced.  The trousers – kind of blue flares with a black stripe pattern – were ruined and binned.  I must have had a pair of jeans with me. Or borrowed some?

Scotland is so beautiful.  It was my first time back since I was one year old.

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Dad and me, 1958.  Scotland

And I have been back many times since, especially to the West Coast, which is where I suspect I am in the photo above.  My Dad had just finished at Cambridge University and we went on holiday with his friend Tony Inglis and his wife.  I don’t remember it obviously but it is nice to have this picture of us enjoying ourselves.   Jenny and I have been to Iona & Mull, the Kintyre peninsula, Fort William, Arisaig and Skye together on three separate occasions, (twice with cats!).  I’ve been to Edinburgh many times (3 – Ed.) as a fledgling actor (see My Pop Life #140 Carly Simon), visited Shetland when Mark Williams did a gig up there, worked in Glasgow a few times on TV shows, went to Aviemore and Inverness one year.  It is a beautiful part of the world.  I’ve always fancied the Hebrides, especially since my university buddy Lewis actually came from Lewis.  Not Lewes.  Another story.

Bright clear air, bleak moorland, heather everywhere, wild flowers, rocky outcrops, sheep, water close by, streams and rivers. Mist.  Nurses who dress your bem.  It’s all good. But all good things must come to pass and thus the day came to say farewell to Korners Coopers and Fords and hitch-hike south to Reading and the Festival.  I cannot remember this journey at all.  It is quite possible that Martin Cooper hitched south with me, because I have a vague memory of us camping together in Newbury on the side of the road near a nuclear power plant?  Perhaps we even went to Reading together?  All assistance gratefully received, and apologies to Martin if indeed it was he, for it would have been a dry run for aour giant intrepid hitchhiking escapade behind the Iron Curtain to years later to Budapest (see My Pop Life #70 The Stylistics)

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I’d been to Reading the previous year which was something of a vintage line-up (see My Pop Life #103) and particularly dug the Welsh band Man who’d played Saturday afternoon.  Lovely groovy guitar work, intermeshing riffs with a tone a little like Joe Walsh my guitar hero, but a vibe all their own.  I’d come back from Reading 72 and bought the LP Be Good To Yourself At Least Once A Day the following spring.  Rumours that it referred to wanking, which was big news in 1973 (he flexes like a whore, falls wanking to the floor – Bowie’s Time) could not be verified.  The 1st track on side two Bananas was certainly about dope though :

I like to eat bananas cos they got no bones I like marijuana cos it gets me stoned

The LP had a quite splendid gatefold-out map of Wales as a cartoon to enjoy while listening and smoking :

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I can’t remember who else liked this record but I’ll plump for Tat, who played guitar in Rough Justice, the band I was playing in.  It has a certain sound which takes me right back to those carefree days of 1972/3 – it’s certainly of its time in that respect.  They have riffage in abundance and twin lead attack like Wishbone Ash or Blue Öyster Cult, they have a terrific organist on top like Osibisa or Greenslade (my discovery of Reading 73), a warmth to the vibe like Jo Walsh or Spirit, a sense of humour like Gentle Giant or Status Quo.  They weren’t trying to be American blues or country.  Just a good band.

reading-73-rod-2Reading 73 wasn’t as good as 72 but had its highlights.  Rod Stewart & The Faces were going through the motions a bit.  Ronnie Lane had left and we had Tetsu on bass like the year before… thus I’ve never seen Ronnie Lane with the Faces.  What was good about early Reading Festivals was the open-minded spirit that meant you could see The Sensational Alex Harvey Band and French bands like Magma or Italian bands alongside folk, rock or even >gasp< R’n’B or jazz – George Melly’s Feetwarmers or Johnny Otis.  And even country which would become the sound of the early seventies. The Eagles didn’t play Reading but they were huge.  We watched the mighty Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen with hoedown fiddles and harmonica and accordion along with the slide guitars and speeded up bluegrass country rock.  Quite tremendous.  Then there was the beer-can throwing vibe in 1973, a practice which I believe has continued to this day.  Some slightly heavy scenes too.  But we – whoever we were – just got stoned & enjoyed the music .  It was the year of feeling carefree and not worrying, of being giggly and stoned and untouchable, miraculously unbreakable, free.

Rory Gallagher was amazing by contrast playing the Irish blues.  He could play.  *Reading-1973-Rory-Gallagher-1swas

The police walked around a bit busting people for dope.  Pretty shit really but you could see them coming for miles off because they weren’t blending in very well.

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Sunday afternoon was a treat – in retrospect at least because I hadn’t heard of these people – because we got Tim Hardin (If I Was A Carpenter, Reason To Believe), Lesley Duncan and…

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John Martyn with Danny Thompson, soon to be a hero on the University and drink circuit (see My Pop Life #153 Small Hours).    And of course we had Genesis again.  They did more or less the same set as the previous summer, ie Supper’s Ready, The Knife, Hogweed, Musical Box – but with different sets and costumes.  Peter Gabriel had gone full theatrical.  In fact I recall that the set opened with him suspended from a rig 25 feet above the stage inside a pyramid with his head poking out the top.  Having just written and remembered that I cannot find any evidence of it on the internet.  But I saw it readers.

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Gabriel at Reading 1973

I found their songs kind of indigestible though frankly and although I enjoyed the costumes and the undoubted musicianship of Tony Banks, Steve Hackett and Phil Collins the only song of theirs which I almost liked is called Firth of Fifth from the LP Selling England By The Pound which they’d recorded a few days earlier, but revealed none of in the live set.  It was released in October with a single I Know What I Like In Your Wardrobe.  Whatever…

Look at these guys*Geordies-campfire-R73-800reading-73-blanket-guyReading-1973-Audience-1swas

 

That was me that was.  Reading Festival, August 1973. 16 years old. Stoned, drunk, skinny and couldn’t care less.  Precious moments.

 

*all photographs taken by kind permissions – credit to Vin Miles, Steve Austin, Stan Was, Gareth Tynan, Peter Kelly from the website http://ukrockfestivals.com/reading-73.html

 

My Pop Life #231 : Dancing Queen – ABBA

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Dancing Queen – ABBA

You can dance, you can jive
Having the time of your life
Ooh, see that girl, watch that scene
Digging the dancing queen

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My favourite memory of my younger sister Becky was her practising ‘majorettes’ routines in our front room in East Sussex to Dancing Queen, when she must have been around 7 years old.   It was her joy.  Her enthusiasm and excellence got her on the front page of a local paper which I cannot reproduce for you here, but:

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Becky standing on the right in majorette’s costume 1979. Mum in front of her

On June 18th 1986 I had reached 29 years old and panicked – I hadn’t written a play yet!   I actually envisioned my life at that point as a shape – literally – a kind of warped triangle with a steep slope up to the top (30 years old) and a gentle declining slope going back down to the base (death around 75?).  So at 29 I was a few steps away from my peak.  I should explain – I thought of my peak as a physical thing, like an athlete or a footballer.  The decline was gentle and should include other peaks within it of course, of wisdom, happiness, success blah blah.  But thirty 30 thirty was a Big Deal.  Be honest, it was for you too wasn’t it?  The end of fucking about.  The start of being responsible for your own life and its trajectory.  The start of the end of blaming your parents for your life.   Proper grown-up, middle-class white western privilege style.  I had an old typewriter and sat down and punched out a play,  vomited up the family history based around an Easter weekend from hell.  It was, to all intents and purposes, my family’s version of Eugene O’Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey Into Night.   Which was my favourite play when I was 29.  Steal from the best !!

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Christmas 1980 perhaps – Mumtaz, Becky, Andrew, me, Paul and Mum – but who is taking it? Alan!

In the play, Easter visitors to the family home are Mumtaz and I who are having problems, and brother Paul, who will announce to the single parent that he is gay.  Mother is having both a nervous breakdown and a bad reaction to new tablets at the time of the visit.  Rebecca is a seven-year old Dancing Queen and Andrew is present via a series of letters which my character reads aloud.   I cannot remember how this happened but I seem to recall slimming the thing down from three hours to two and presenting it as a radio play at one point.  So the slender version was some how sent to The National Theatre Studio under the wing of Peter Gill and got a week’s rehearsal for a rehearsed reading.  This was exciting !  I think I thought that I’d made it. Ha.  I cannot remember anyone in the cast except Stephanie Fayerman who played Mum.  She was extraordinary and instinctively knew how to play the part I’d written.  Without comment.  Deeply sympathetic yet unsentimental.

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Drive Away The Darkness is set in the house on the left

Gill and Nicholas Wright summoned me into a room after the reading was done and asked me “what I wanted to do with it?”  I wasn’t entirely sure why they were asking me that, so I answered, truthfully : “Get it produced?”   They smiled somewhat condescendingly “no, we meant what do you want to do with the material?”   I didn’t know what they were talking about.    “Go away and have a think about it”.   No clues, no notes, no help was offered.  I wondered what the point of it all was.  Encouragement ?  There isn’t a course for playwriting that I was aware of, and I had no idea what they thought was wrong with it as it was.  Maybe – in retrospect – they wanted the structure to be clever.  Flashbacks.  These kinds of things go in and out of fashion, but there are no flashbacks in Pinter (ooh, yes there are – Betrayal!) , and Shakespeare’s plays all start at the beginning and go forward in time.  Most plays do this to be fair.   I don’t know.  Anyway, I don’t think I was a better playwright at the end of that week than I was before.  It was a famous Missed Opportunity.

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teenage rampage!

But the flame had been lit, and the following year I applied to Joint Stock Theatre Company with my friend Paulette Randall for their annual playwriting job, based on a workshop which we would do with six actors and a designer.  I got lucky and we got the gig.  The result was Sanctuary, a hip-hop musical about homeless teenagers which toured the UK in 1987 (see My Pop Life #86).

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Rebecca and her looky-likey Martine ‘matinee’ McCutcheon

I digress somewhat.  My sister Rebecca who opened my first play as a seven-year old has had a long eventful fecund life, three marriages, three children all from the second, and a wonderful sense of humour.  I wrote about her 40th birthday and her children Mollie and Ellie in My Pop Life #120 and again went back to that party for a different angle in My Pop Life #161.  Since I wrote those chapters things have changed – Becky fell out with some finality with mother, who had been abusing her for years, both mentally and physically.  We’ve all taken it in turns to make a final break with mother – she is very difficult and as well as being mentally ill is also not a very nice woman.  It’s difficult to find the line sometimes, but we have all found it in our own way and drawn it distinctively around ourselves for protection.  I don’t hate my mother but she wants to hurt us, and does so consistently.  She isn’t stupid, she knows where our weak points are and pokes them until she can see blood.  It’s just what she’s like.  She has a gift for seeing people all the way through but she abuses it.  Becky held out longer than any of us.  We’ve all supported her though, even though the four of us – me, Paul, Andrew and Becky – are in different corners of the earth – we have a family What’s App group for sentient adults which Jenny is included on where we share the news both triumphant and tragic.

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Alan, Mum, Becky early 80s

Early last year Mum started to fall over in her bungalow back on the estate in Hailsham where we all moved in 1971.  She has a garden on three sides and it is quiet, best place she’s lived in I think.  She has a small dog called Trisha and walks with a Zimmer frame, support workers and health visitors come in every day.  She fell over and hurt herself and went into hospital.  I was in England to officiate at my niece’s wedding in Hampshire but I had time to visit her in hospital, with Andrew (who was frankly shocked at seeing her in that condition).  I’d done it so many times I didn’t realise it was new to him.  Above the bed it said “Bedbound”. Now all this time, Becky is having nothing to do with her.  Tired of the abuse and needs to get on with her own life, to heal, to stop going back for more abuse and pain.  So Andrew steps up and does the admin – talking to the hospital, the social workers, the carers, with Becky giving him a bit of help without having to speak to anyone.  Mum is taken to a Nursing Home which she hates.  I call her there on her birthday and she is in a rage of self-pity and pleads with me to get her out “I’m surrounded by dying people”.    Within weeks she is home but not because of anything I did.  Paul and I go to see her in August at home, reunited with the dog.  As visits go it is up there with the best.  No hallucinations, no abuse, no paranoia just a few reminiscences and a chat and a laugh.  Becky still isn’t speaking to her.

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Mum and Trish, August 2019 aged 84

Cut to 22nd November 2019.  Two months ago.  Becky has a row with live-in boyfriend Lee, goes outside and gets into her car and drives.  Even though she hasn’t spoken to mother for over two years, she finds herself driving across Hailsham to Town Farm Estate where she went to primary school and where mother now lives.  As she parks the car and walks towards the house she can hear a beeping noise than sees smoke pouring out of a window.  The place is on fire.  The door isn’t locked so she runs in and grabs Mother who is screaming “I’m not leaving!” and gets her outside somehow, grabbing the zimmer frame as she goes, calls 999 and waits for the Fire Brigade while mother continues to abuse her and the neighbour comes out and Mum goes to wait in there.  She’s never spoken to the neighbour until this point.  The Fireman asks where is Heather (mum) going to live – by this time Becky’s best friend Jan has turned up who is herself a miracle social worker and she intervenes, Becky has just had a stroke she can’t look after her mother.  Jan and Becky leave and Mum gets taken to a nursing home because the kitchen is destroyed.

What are the chances of Becky arriving at that very moment?

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Debbie, Mark, Bex & Peter, Andrew, Paul and Colin 1987?

There are stranger things happening than you or I know about.

I called mum a few days later to see how she was.  We spoke for a bit about Jenny’s sister Dee who died suddenly last summer after an operation which knocked us all for six.  At which point my mum said “You care more about Jenny and those black people than you do about me“.   Pretty soon after that the phone got cut off and I decided not to call back.  Andrew is still in loco parentis there, fielding the admin.

*

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Thinking back to that period of time after I left home, really anywhere between 1976 to 1981 it’s ABBA who dominate the musical landscape.  Mum and Becky shared a mutual love for I Have A Dream, Chiquita, Lay All Your Love On Me, The Winner Takes It All, Thank You For The Music.   No wonder I started my play with ABBA.   Watching them live on Youtube is strange though.  They are so antiseptic and stiff.  Amazing music, arrangements, melodies, chord changes.  Great pop music.  If you listen to the albums (rather than the greatest LP of all time ABBA Gold), you’ll hear hit after hit after hit.  Every song is a hit.  Benny on the keys, Bjorn on the guitar, a songwriting hit factory to match Lennon & McCartney. I’ve had a weird relationship with Dancing Queen.  I think it was so ubiquitous in the 1980s/90s, being wheeled out at every party disco club and rave that I got sick of it.  Jenny loves it – she was one of the DJs who wheeled it out in fact!  Then the band decided to play it for a party and I got to play the violin parts on my keyboard – quite a good sample as it goes – but I got the chance to crawl inside the song and examine its mechanics.  What a joy.  The harmonies.  The clever way it loops back into the verse each time, the chorus chords which flip over depending on which part of the song you’re in.   But that was just an introduction.  Recently I re-discovered it as a piano piece – got the chords, and started to learn it properly.  And have completely fallen in love with what is probably the finest pop song every written and recorded.  The way it all fits together so effortlessly but the wonderful architecture that makes that possible is just incredibly impressive.  Listen to the counter melody beneath “having the time of your life” for a glorious thrill that is unmatched in popular music…

Took a while, but I got there in the end.

E                           C#7                 F#m                                   B7
You can dance, you can jive, having the time of your life
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See that girl, watch that scene, digging the dancing queen

My Pop Life #230 : That’s The Way Love Goes – Merle Haggard

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That’s The Way Love Goes – Merle Haggard

I’ve been throwing horseshoes over my left shoulder
I’ve spent most all my life searching for that four-leafed clover
Yet you ran with me chasing my rainbows
Honey, I love you too and that’s the way love goes

*

My wife tells me I was born under a lucky star.  Because I met her, I assume is the backstory to that fantasy?  Well, yes, but there’s more.  I literally was born under Balthazar, a star in Gemini near the constellation of Orion. Does this have meaning?  What is luck anyway?

“The more I practice the luckier I get” is a quote attributed to golfer Arnold Palmer who also gave his name to a non-alcoholic drink of iced tea & lemonade combined.

Back in schooldays a few of us liked to study the geegees form in the Daily Mirror.  What are geegees?  They’re horses bred for racing.  I cannot tell you why they are called GGs.  Gee up horsey!   Anyway there are horse races pretty much every day in Britain and Ireland, either flat racing or over the jumps. I probably got this habit from Pete Smurthwaite, whose family I lived with twice due to my dysfunctional family situation which repeated itself on an almost continual basis from the age of seven til right now.  I have discussed this before in these pages, but the key entry for Pete and his family involved Jimi Hendrix in My Pop Life #84 All Along The Watchtower.   We also did other stuff – played bridge for example as a pair, played football, got stoned, analysed the politics of the day.  The horse racing was another challenge, and we had a system.  All gamblers have a system.  In other words, no gambler really relies on luck, perhaps because, like Arnold Palmer, they don’t really believe in it.

 

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The chairman of my beloved Seagulls, aka Brighton & Hove Albion has a family that has been with the club since the 1970s – been on the board of the club I mean.  Tony Bloom made his fortune as a professional gambler – poker mainly as a player, then he was in at the birth of online gambling.  I’ve never met Tony but I have been told, indeed it is an open secret, that his system is all based on numbers and probabilities.  I cannot reveal his poker system because I don’t know it, but I do know that he doesn’t sign a new player for the football team, spending his own money, without studying the form, the figures, the numbers.  Albion fans could argue that this has failed as often as it has succeeded – for every Trossard there’s an Andone, for every Maupay a Locadia.  But I have a short memory as far as football is concerned.  My brain doesn’t have room for previous football matches in it.  So I live totally in the present with the Albion.

I can’t remember exactly what our system was for the horses but it relied on the figures and numbers that the Daily Mirror supplied of that horse’s form – where had it finished in the last ten races? Was it ever a beaten favourite? Who was the jockey? Does it perform in the rain?  Points were awarded.  Bets were laid.  I can only imagine that betting shops in East Sussex weren’t too bothered about schoolkids gambling.  I know Phil Wheatley – who famously walked out of a French lesson announcing that he was going for a shit – looked older than us and would often be the layer of bets.  But not always.  I can remember the betting shop I frequented in Hailsham at that time – I was about 15-16.  They took my money.

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Traditionally, bookies or betting shops are situated near to scuzzy pubs & frequented by hollow-eyed alcoholics

And yes, I was lucky.  I won.  Not every bet.  But when I checked my weekly outgoings & incomings, winnings and losings, I was up.

This scared me.  I was dabbling really, messing about.  I felt that a lifetime of gambling would be a spiral down (despite what I now know about Tony Bloom I still feel a little bit Presbyterian about it).  So I stopped.  Just like that.  I had other things to think about – music, girls, football.  But it is a little like feeling the inner voice and realising that you are a small step from addiction.  And that wouldn’t be lucky, would it?   Jenny’s parents like to gamble, and she grew up with horse-racing too.  She has also been tempted by the habit and applied massive amounts of self-control (which she has a Phd in) to walk away.

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The paddock is on the right, the racetrack far left. In the distance is the sea

I went to the dogs in Hove one night for Mark Williams’ birthday (?), and then the races on Brighton Downs, just a short walk from our house in Kemptown.  We went to the paddock before the first race and watched the horses walk around in a slow circle.  I remembered the words of Trevor Cooper, an actor who had been to Edinburgh Festival with me twice in the early 80s, my formative years, himself a student of horse form :  “Bet on the horse that takes a shit.  It means he won’t stop for one on the way round.”

We were with Rula Lenska that day and it was Ladies Day AND Amanda Blanch‘s birthday., Mandy and Lucy were down.   Fizz fizz pop.  I can’t remember winning anything at all.  Maybe I wasn’t even there.  Didn’t matter.

The one time Jenny and I flirted most seriously with Being Lucky Punk was our First Visit To Las Vegas Together.  We’d moved to Los Angeles after Alien 3 and settled in West Hollywood, King’s Road near the Beverly Center.  Of course Las Vegas was a mere four hours by car – but at the time that seemed to us a long drive .  Across the desert in the white Lincoln Continental to The Luxor Hotel, later immortalised in Frank Ocean‘s song Pyramids.  On the strip.

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Any excuse to post a photograph of my Lincoln Continental 

People don’t go to Las Vegas to visit the zoo.  There are shows, of course, there are shows I wish I’d seen, of course… namely Elvis Presley in 1968, or 1970, or 1971.  And Count Basie with Frank Sinatra in 1966.

People go to Vegas to gamble.  I remember vividly my first visit to that glittering city of sin in the desert, in 1976 when I was a youth of 19 in my gap year.  I’ll write about that on another occasion, but that trip would be filed under LUCKY in the columns of my life, since I could have died that weekend.

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Luxor Hotel and Casino on the Strip, Las Vegas

So Jenny and I parked up, checked in and had some food downstairs.  Then, couldn’t delay any longer, time to gamble.  We’d discussed it over dinner. We had a system.  I shall reveal it to you now because what the hell.  First we would only play roulette. Second we would only have one bet per table and move on.  Third, we would always bet fifteen dollars divided into three $5 bets.  Cheap you say? It adds up is all.

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And 4th – these $5 bets would always be exactly the same – on the line between 9 & 12, 17 & 18, and 33 & 36. Payout is 17 to 1.

Most hotels had the same kind of chips as I recall which meant that you could move from casino to casino without constantly going to a cashier.  The Luxor Casino Cashier took some cash and handed us chips, small plastic counters, worth absolutely nothing outside this environment.  We sighed and dived in.  The first place we gambled was the Luxor casino.  One bet per table, as described above.  There were six tables.  We got lucky.  On the third table the little white ball span into the number 33, and since we had half of five dollars on that number we got 17 times five.  Is it $85?  And then on the final table in Luxor we landed on number 9.  Another $85, which meant we were eighty dollars UP on the first casino.   It was a good start and we left and walked a short way down the road into the warm night and the next place.

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The Excalibur.  There were more than six tables here, and we were once again successful twice, although I should add that we did get offered some free cocktails and yes, we drank them. We walked down to the MGM.  The Waldorf AstoriaPark MGM. The Flamingo. Caesar’s Palace.  And we’d been lucky.  Or else it was a good system.  By now we were over 3000 dollars UP on the night and it was just after 10pm.  We were light-headed and happy, gliding through the warm evening air loaded down with cash and chips.  Where next?  Far too early to go to bed….

Las Vegas, Nevada, USA, The Strip

Winning is, in the end, a Mirage (unless you go home)

We walked past the Pirates Of The Caribbean exhibit and found ourselves at The Mirage Casino.  We went in.  We lost at the first table and the second.  On the third we made a fatal error and changed the system.  We stayed on that third table and played two more rounds.  I cannot remember much after that.  We were drunk.  At least I was.  Somehow it all went weird. We carried on.  It wasn’t shiny any more.  It was grubby and sordid.  It stopped glittering and winking and we could see the dirt and the dust.   Some croupiers had a look of pity in their eyes as we gambled that $3000 away.  Methodically.  It slipped rather miserably through our fingers.  We tried other numbers.  Red. Odd.  What about 27?  We couldn’t go home until it was all gone.  That happened around 1am.   Tails between our legs, we took a taxi back, stunned, trying to understand what had happened.  Jenny wanted to go downstairs and carry on, win back everything we had lost.  She found a credit card.  They take credit cards in Las Vegas funnily enough.  She was keen.  I didn’t think it was such a good idea.

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Roger Griffith & Jo Melville in our living room in King’s Road, W. Hollywood

About a year later we travelled to Las Vegas again to see our friends Jo and Roger who were touring the USA in a play.  To my shame I cannot remember the play. We must have gambled a bit on that trip too, then gone upstairs.  In the middle of the night I woke up with a strange feeling, turned over and Jenny was gone. I knew where she was.  It was 3.30am as I pulled my jeans on and a pair of shoes and went along to the lift.  In the casino I saw Jenny’s back standing at a roulette table.  I approached her gently as she laid some chips on the green baize. The big wheel span & the little white ball went against the spin then jumped and bobbled into number 24.  The chips were scraped in by the croupier.  Jenny felt me and turned around.  “What the hell are you doing?” I said.  “Come on”.  Roger had been there with her and already slunk back upstairs, so she accepted defeat and came back to the room.  I took the room key card off her and placed it under my pillow.  “You are gambling away our mortgage” I said.  And went to sleep.

We haven’t gambled since then really.  Are we lucky though? I feel lucky every day to be honest, even when I’m depressed.  I can’t look at the world and feel any other way.  I am lucky, lucky star or no.  I land on my feet.  It’s all a matter of perspective really isn’t it.  Choice.  Half-full or half-empty.  Grateful or bitter.  Richard E Grant said to me about ten years ago when he was doing a show in the West End “I don’t want to grow old in bitterness” which was a quote he’d got from Roddy MacDowall – the original chimp in Planet of the Apes.  I think its a key idea.  To smell the roses a little more as you grow older.  To stop comparing yourself to others, stop regretting the past, the decisions, the things that you could have changed.  It is what it is.  You have to forgive yourself for being you in the end.

None of this would be possible without my boo.  I’ve written about her a whole lot, but it’s the truth.  She ran with me, chasing my rainbows, and now I’m running with her, chasing hers.  That’s the way love goes.

 

 

The song was written by Lefty Frizzell and first came out in 1971.  For me it is inextricably tied to the moment when I embraced country music in the late 80s/early 90s under the guidance of Ken Cranham.  Saw some great gigs and bought some incredible music. Went to Nashville in 1988 (see My Pop Life #83 Country Boy) and remembered I’d bought cowboy boots when I was 18 in Santa Fe.  The guy in the shop said I should buy a pair half a size too small and they’d expand into my footshape.  They did that, then split along the sole.  Bought a few more pairs since that day though.  I never cared much about looking cool.  Not true of course, but I always walked the line of derision and mockery.  Ponced around the LSE in 1976 like a cowboy until punk’s sulphate urgency gripped me.  But I’ve always loved country music and style, and simultaneously felt I knew nothing about it.  Ken Burns Country doc fixed that.

Merle Haggard was in San Quentin when according to Legend he saw Johnny Cash playing to the prisoners and it turned his life around.  From Bakersfield, California he became a huge country star who championed the working man and whose songs are like the man himself  – unsentimental perhaps, but truthful and honest. Proper country music.  I bought this song as a 45 rpm single in Ernest Tubb’s Record Store in Nashville in 1988.  It has a warmth and generosity to the production, and an incredible quality to the vocal that really moves me.  And the guitar solo is pretty good too.   Merle has written and sung a ton of great songs.  This is my favourite.

My Pop Life #229 : Wish Tower – Glen Richardson

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Wish Tower  –  Glen Richardson

Morning came in seven flavours I tried every one

Stuffed my bags with chocolate fags and ran off home to mum

Had my little tryst with sunny Aberystwyth

But I missed the haunts of my youth

Kept all my daydreams as proof

Stuffed behind the station ticket booth

Careful of that melancholy morning.  I awoke today too early with a misty dream just out of reach and the opening lines of this song tiptoeing across my mind. I turned around and my cat Boy stood on me so I turned back and we made solace for a moment. Then he left for a warm spot but the song stayed.  I tried to remember the rest of it. I tried to go back to sleep.  Neither being successful I was left with one option. Get up, make a cup of tea, feed Boy (and Roxy who didn’t come down) and put on the headphones and listen to the song.  Tears sprang to my eyes as they usually do when I hear it, but this morning more than usual.

*

The opening is curious until you reach the chorus but it resembles a trippy haunted memory of Eastbourne Pier and the bingo caller shouting over the plinks plonks and wooden planks of the penny arcade machines.  Childhood memories.  Chocolate fags were sweet cigarettes made of sugar for children to pretend they were smoking. Although the chocolate ones were perhaps more cigar-like. The sweet cigarettes were white.  Then we’re quickly off to Wales, the coastal town of Aberystwyth where the writer Glen studied music for 3 years.  Clearly one of the student activities was trying to find rhymes for the town name which Glen manages here with winning aplomb.  But home calls him back.  East Sussex.  The haunts of my youth.  The melancholia of autumn, halloween and the past in one short sweet line.  The final two lines of the first verse are just breathtaking though and they lift my heart while simultaneously bringing water to mine eyn.  His daydreams are stuffed behind the station ticket booth.  Glen lived in Polegate and takes the train to Eastbourne eventually, a lost town by the sea where Debussy composed La Mer and where I and my brothers would climb Beachy Head with my dad in the years after he’d left the house where we lived with mum in Selmeston,  not far from Polegate.

Which is where we find Glen in verse two – happily back home.

 

Sunny lazy Monday mornings back where I belong

Loves and hates and middle eights for some unfinished song

Look who’s in the garden ripping up a carton

Dragged out from our rubbish box

No stars for you Mr Fox

Nipping down the Co-Op in your socks

 

It’s like a dream from a memory, songwriting happiness in rural sunny England in the 1970s. The almost embarrassing recall of nipping down the Co-op (a supermarket) in your socks is so specific so domestic and so relaxed and loose that we get a clue as to why this life is hymned as the glowing holy grail but there’s something drifting too, the D major chord that can’t escape its root, the fading backing vocals that accompany Mr Fox. Where are we going?

One way to Eastbourne when you’re off-season

Wished on the Wish Tower but I’m still around

Left all my stardust down at the Congress

Went back to fetch it but look what I found

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The Wish Tower is an old fort on the beach which now has a cafe and gardens around it, local denizens walk slowly with walking sticks and take their seats in the autumn sunlight.  What did Glen wish for ?  Success probably because he’s still around.  The reference to Hoagy Carmichael’s Star Dust always pricks my eyes because it is simply my favourite song – discussed earlier in these memoirs at My Pop Life #100 in the version by Nat King Cole.  The Congress Theatre is where you’ll get the annual pantomime with fading stars from television, faces you’ll know and love.  A certain type of show business that contains its own inbuilt melancholia – but they’ll also host touring theatre and the occasional pop or rock show.  Provincial English Theatre par excellence.  I remember shooting a scene from a pop video in there one autumn with Mark Williams, Zoe Thorne and a Welsh band The Crocketts. For another time.  But look what I found ?  Every great song has to have a mysterious line :

And though she feels as if she’s in a play, she is anyway

Glen has the same relationship with Sir Paul as I do – frankly, adoration – which is one reason why we clicked early on in the Brighton Beach Boys days in 2002 – learning those sibling Wilson harmonies in Steve & Rory’s flat in Viaduct Road – In My Room, Surfer Girl, Help Me Rhonda.  Glen calls him Saint Paul.  If you’re going to be influenced by someone, you could do worse.

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Stephen Wrigley and Glen Richardson in electric dreams

Of course my feeling for this song is coloured completely by my relationship to Glen, and to my memories of Eastbourne and what it means to me :  Slightly genteel, full of white-haired conservatives and a few scallywags, a faintly useless record shop, and a whole bunch of businesses which seemed rather sad and neglected, as if shrugging at the lack of interest from the people walking by. Some foreign students, happy, weird happy people. My dad in a flat near the seafront.  Crazy golf.  Queens Tennis club (never been). The best bit of Eastbourne of course is the walk up to Beachy Head.

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Walking to Beachy Head.  The Wish Tower is the fort this side of the pier.

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Magnificent.   A wave-cut platform full of hermit crabs, tidal pools and other treasure where The Downs meets The Sea and falls into it.  A large piece of chalk.  And of course, where you go to commit suicide. Setting for my film New Year’s Day – (press the back button below three times for that story, not so much melancholic as downright tragic!)

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Wedding Day swoon

By the time I’d met Glen he was with Christine who had seen him perform (with Steve and Rory and others) at the Gardner Arts Centre at Sussex University with a 30 -piece orchestra playing the music of Burt Bacharach and Hal David.  Glen was singing, and since he has the voice of an angel, she swooned immediately.  The rest is herstory.  A few years after we met they were married but I’ll save that for another post and another song.  But Glen’s mum was often at our early gigs with Glen’s sister, they travelled in from Polegate to Brighton.  A sweet little cherub with her own head of white hair and a twinkly smile.  She fell ill once and we travelled in to see her in hospital and sang her a five-part harmony Surfer Girl (Glen may correct me here in the precise details).  She died earlier this year after some illness, just before I went to England to conduct the marriage of my god-daughter Kimberley to her beau Kazim.  I didn’t make the funeral but I called Glen from the wedding venue as we waited for the rehearsal to start the day before and we had a surreal and delightful chat as he handled both his children Daisy and Stan in the back garden of his Hollingbury house overlooking the Downs and a bee threatened their peaceful afternoon.  I miss him.

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Glen Richardson is happy

Glen passed me a CD of 16 songs sometime back in 2009 if I recall correctly.  The band was thriving, by then we were performing Pet Sounds & Sgt Pepper every year in the Brighton Festival.  Then we decided to arrange Abbey Road for concerts, and needed a new first half.  That first year (2011) I talked the band and Glen (just about) into performing his album of self-composed songs which was then called Pop Dreams.  Brilliant gems of songwriting in the mould of Joe Jackson, Elvis Costello or Randy Newman with sparse instrumentation which exposed the songs themselves as the little jewels that they are.  I particularly liked All Sewn Up, Underground and A Country Walk but they are all really good.  I started giving the CD to friends of mine urging them to listen – see what you think of this> because I couldn’t believe that someone as talented as him hadn’t been signed, hadn’t been produced, didn’t have a deal.  Even if not as a singer (incredible though he is) as a songwriter.  In fact Brighton was full of people like this at that point (and maybe always has been and always will be).  Stars and Sons.  Butterfly McQueen. Electric Soft Parade !  To name but three.  So we started to rehearse Pop Dreams. I would be on backing vocals mainly because there’s only one keyboard part, and very little woodwind.  Then I got a job.  It was spring 2011 and Bryan Singer was directing Jack The Giant Slayer under a giant beanstalk somewhere in Surrey out of Longcross Studios and I was to assist in disguise.

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Ian McShane, Chris Fairbank, unknown, me : Jack The Giant Slayer

It meant that I would miss the crucial rehearsals right before showtime which was May 28th in St George’s Church.  So disappointing.  I didn’t even know if I would be able to do the gig at all such are the demands and vagaries of filming.  So I pulled out of Pop Dreams and let them get on with it.  I wasn’t exactly a critical member of the band instrumentally for this show, but there is a nebulous chemistry among us all and it would change when people were missing.  I was told that my presence was missed and all I heard back was of friction and disagreements as Glen felt people weren’t learning his songs quickly or thoroughly enough.  He was under pressure in retrospect. How do you learn a song ?  You listen to it and then work it out at home. Nothing I could do.

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Rehearsal : Tom on drums, Rory guitar, Steve bass, Adrian guitar, Glen on keys

I made the May 25th rehearsal three days before the weekend of gigs – on Sunday it was Pet Sounds and Sgt Pepper which still needs rehearsal even if you know it !  On the day in fact I was free and watched Pop Dreams from the back of the church.  I loved those songs and the band played them really well, but I just wish I’d been up there singing the backing vocals which were largely missing.

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Then I joined them for Abbey Road in the 2nd half.  Later on Glen confessed that he’d found the entire experience an ordeal and he was a) glad it was over and b) would never do it again.  Which was a shame because I had a fantasy that the Brighton Beach Boys could have an original outlet with Glen songs.  It wasn’t to be.  The following year we played other songs from 1969 cleverly titled “The 1969 Show” as our warm up for Abbey Road.  Anyway here’s the third and final verse of Wish Tower.

Mother writes a letter to the local government

Says we won’t be beaten and I wonder what she meant

Wonder where my dad’s gone, please don’t look so sad son

Maybe he’s lost in the rain

Won’t be the same here again

Must be off now I’m gonna miss the train

*

So touching, so direct, so sad – the memory of the death of his father, which could be from years earlier but is the final shattering verse before the final haunting chorus.  I cannot hear this verse without the tears coming which is extraordinary because I never met Glen’s father, and mine is still alive (as is my dear mother).  But his facility with the melody, his delivery of the lyric, and the lyric itself :

Won’t be the same here again

is quietly devastating.  And the final line is just so English, as a reaction to expressing emotion.  As the current Halloween season draws to its climax on Thursday here in New York City, over two months have now passed since my wife Jenny’s beloved older sister Dee died.  We are still in shock and the season is perfect for our sadness which is a heartbeat away from whatever mood we are in.  We feel so close to her but she has gone and it won’t be the same here again.

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