My Pop Life #151 : Mood Indigo – Charles Mingus

Mood Indigo   –   Charles Mingus

I have been writing this occasional musical memoir now for almost two years. This is the 151st entry, the 151st song. Am I halfway-through? One third? Just started? Almost finished?  Who knows.  If only it had been the 150th…

I am pressing the great pause button in the sky after this entry though, because, so far at least, I have not been paid for my writings here. So for the time being I will transfer my attention and energy to the commercial sphere, and look to create some drama, whether it be theatre, TV or film. I am sure occasional entries will insist on being registered, songs will trigger memories, memories will trigger songs. The blog’s not dead, just resting.

Charles Mingus entered my world in the late 1970s. I was studying law at LSE. I’d spent the first two years in University accomodation around Fitzroy St W1, beneath the Post Office tower, a short walk down Charlotte St to Soho and the West End. I’d torn tickets at The Other Cinema on Scala Street, soon to become The Scala Cinema. I’d seen the Sex Pistols, The Ramones, and The Clash live onstage.  Now in 1978 I moved out of Central London and dared to relocate south of the river, where fellow student Mike Stubbs rented an entire house on Canonbie Road in Honor Oak.  SE23 for fuck’s sake.  I had a bedroom (with a piano in it!), and shared the facilities – bathroom, kitchen, living room, garden – with Mike and his girlfriend Hilary, and her friend Rosie, who were both nurses. It was massively civilized, and very comfortable – by far the most well-appointed place I’d ever lived in, reminding me of the Korner’s Lewes house, or the Ryle’s place on St Anne’s Cresecent. Or come to think of it, our beautiful semi-detached place in Selmeston where I grew up.  Honor Oak is a hill just to the south of Peckham Rye, and I caught the number 63 bus into the LSE every day, rather than walk through Bloomsbury down to the Aldwych as I had for the two previous years. It was all very grown up and rather shocking.  I recall that at least some of the time I would stay in town with my girlfriend Mumtaz in William Goodenough House, Mecklenburgh Square WC1.  Bloomsbury.

I was musically curious even then. Not content with punk and new wave I was exploring the deeper realms of Pop with the encouragement of Mike. He made me a tape – a C90 cassette – called Gotta Have Pop, which contained songs by solo Jay Ferguson (from Spirit), the later period Kinks (Celluloid Heroes), Supertramp, 10cc and Colin Blunstone. My classmate Lewis MacLeod and I were deep underground in the soul mine digging out ‘unknown classics’ from the record shops of Soho – Major Lance, Garnet Mimms, Lorraine Ellison, Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland (see My Pop Life #28 ) or Millie Jackson.

But my inner explorer was going further – I’d bought a Duke Ellington LP, a Billie Holiday LP, a Stan Getz LP, and next : a Charlie Mingus LP. I cannot remember why or how this album caught my attention, but I bought it without listening to it, I liked the cover, maybe someone I admired had mentioned it, maybe a random choice.

It was called Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus and it was and still is completely amazing.  I am eternally grateful that I found this album and this artist at such a young age – or at any age really.  Hours of joy and passion.  There are many jazz artists that I have simply not heard in any context, and I am sure that many of them are absolutely brilliant, just undiscovered by my ears just yet.  But here was a bullseye.  Mingus played double bass and ran a large band for this LP which was made in 1963 in New York.  Among the players : Eric Dolphy on saxophone, Eddie Preston & Richard Williams on trumpets and Jaki Byard on the piano.  The album collects different versions of some of Mingus’ best-known compositions often with different titles.  The classic Goodbye Pork Pie Hat becomes Theme For Lester Young, while Haitian Fight Song becomes II B.S.   The LP was a kind of full stop in Mingus’career to that date, a summation of a brilliant run of albums that culminated in The Black Saint & The Sinner Lady in 1963.   He was a superb arranger and big-band leader, second only to the great Duke Ellington in the history of jazz.  On this record he pulled in Bob Hammer to help orchestrate, arrange and score the eleven-piece band.

None of which I knew in 1978.  It was just a great noise.  Jazz.  Squelchy, fat, fluid, wild and hot.  The notes stretch against each other, pulling in different directions, the result is terrifically exciting music.  It operates like a kind of collective improvisation at times, and although the elements of free jazz might be suggested, everything is pinned down, but loose.  It’s a great trick if you can pull it off.

People seem to prefer Mingus Ah Um from 1959 (a stunning LP) or The Black Saint & The Sinner Lady LP, but my ears prefer this album which for me is simply wall-to-wall genius.  On it there is one cover – a song which appeared on my Duke Ellington LP (1929-1930) – a very famous slow blues ballad called Mood Indigo.  Written in 1930 by Ellington and Barney Bigard, with occasional lyrics by Irving Mills, although often played as an instrumental.  Ellington’s genius was to take the three lead instruments : Bigard on the clarinet (normally the top line) Arthur Whetsol on trumpet (in the middle) Joe Nanton on trombone (bottom line) and reverse them, so that Nanton was playing at the very top of his range, and Bigard at the very bottom of his.  The result was astounding.  Mingus takes the elements of this gentle lyrical tune, strips them out and reconfigures them – with respect, always with respect for Duke – and then proceeds to play a double bass solo which is the final word in bass playing I believe.

Charles Mingus died in 1979.  His widow, Sue Mingus, runs several bands who play his enormous legacy of works.  There is the seven-piece Mingus Dynasty.  There is a Mingus Big Band who perform at the Jazz Standard on E 27th St every Monday night, a 14-piece playing the well-known and undiscovered compositions of the master.  Jenny and I went last year with Doraly & Kristine and had a terrific night in the company of five-star players – occasionally Randy Brecker, Wayne Escoffery or Vincent Herring sit in, but they’re all top top players.  The school of jazz that Mingus started back in 1956 is still running it’s collective improvisation classes, play loose, stay tight, listen to each other.  Although the work now is scored, the feel has to still be there.   One of the very best nights out you can have in Manhattan.

At the interval I went upstairs for a cigarette and had a chat to the bass player Boris Kozlov who was doing the same.  Well- he was being Mingus, I was just smoking a cigarette.  I asked him if he was going to play Mood Indigo.  “No,” he said,  “Mingus didn’t write that.”

“I know” I said.  “But it’s one of his greatest moments for me”.

“You’re right” he said.

I base my opinion on a small collection of Mingus LPs which I have collected over the years – and my ears.  Last year I read his pungent and scandal-laden autobiography which is nothing if not honest, entitled “Beneath The Underdog“.  It describes his early years and adventures in Los Angeles and New York in the underbelly of the jazz scene with startling clarity and eye-opening salacious detail.  I recommend it to all.

Mood Indigo has become one of my theme songs over the ensuing years.  Never far from a top 20 list or a mixtape, it conjures something ineffable and pure which seems to come from my very bones.  It’s all in the bass.  The horns wail the familiar tune which appears to express pure sorrow, while the piano adds splashes of colour.  But the double bass expresses the soul of the piece and takes the solo into inner space, while always being aware of the song’s essential shape.   Mingus adored and admired Ellington, and so do I, (see My Pop Life #34) and this song, like many of the Duke’s, became a standard – a tune to play for the punters then improvise around, stretch out on.  It is the definition of beauty.

It also seems to express an inner sadness that is an essential part of me.  I am unable to rest or relax without feeling it.  Only when busy or when filled with purpose does this feeling retreat.  When I am writing, playing music, acting, shopping, sweeping the floor or folding clothes in the corner laundrette then I feel fine.  But when everything is done and the great void offers to swallow me up once more, the horror vacuii emerges from within and I feel in my essence a profound depression which I have had for over 50 years.  Mingus suffered from depression too, and fits of rage with famous examples of physical explosions and giant sulks.  He was a musical perfectionist and demanded the very best from his team, from his band.  He hated the clink of ice in a glass when he was playing live in nightclubs, and often stopped to berate the audience.  He was driven, unhappy and had to express himself to survive, and I totally understand that.  It’s not a matter of choice, it’s a compulsion to create or drown in your own mood indigo.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the blog, it will continue but not on a regular basis.  There is a Follow button to the right beneath this post, if you click it, any new posts will come direct to your inbox.   Stay well.  Be kind.  Bye.

 

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My Pop Life #131 : Santa Claus Is Coming To Town – The Crystals

Santa Claus Is Coming To Town   –   The Crystals

Jimmy, I just came back from a lovely trip along the milky way
I stopped off at the North Pole to spend the holiday
I called on old, dear Santa Claus to see what I could see
He took me to his workshop and told his plans to me
Now Santa is a busy man, he has no time for play
He’s got millions of stockings to fill come Christmas day
You better write your letter now and mail it right away
Because he’s getting ready, his reindeers and his sleigh…

You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout I’m telling you why….                                  Santa Claus Is Coming To Town…

I expect most of us raised as christians can remember the day when we discovered that Santa Claus would Not in fact Be Coming To Town.  For the simple reason that he didn’t actually exist.  A moment of private devastation.  But we carried on telling each other the story, spinning the yarn.

I was eight years old at the little flint-walled village school in Selmeston in East Sussex, in the shadow of the South Downs.  My holy ground now, filled with echoes and ghosts.  Then, it was filled with wonder and nature.   Seasons changing.   Discovery.  One December day a small group of us were discussing Santa Claus before the teacher arrived.  One child, which one I simply cannot recall, ventured the terrible truth to a sceptical audience of believers that Santa Claus didn’t actually exist.  Like an anvil dropping through the floor this news broke each and every one of us.  Something which perhaps we’d suspected but secretly hoped wasn’t true.  Now it seemed confirmed, announced, solid news to sulk over.  Would Christmas still happen ?  Of course it would.  The stocking was filled by Mum and Dad when we were asleep.  I decided to stay awake all night on Christmas Eve and catch them doing it.  Like probably millions of other small children around the world.  Did I then proceed to break the news to my brother Paul who was a two two innocent years younger than I ?  Memory does not supply the answer but perhaps I needed company in my newly-found Christmas loneliness.  Or perhaps I locked the secret away.

The Crystals in 1963

I never did see my parents or my Mum when she was single fill my stocking, or indeed deliver it unto my bed.  I never did feel it either.  It remains the greatest single thrill available to my memory of Christmas, to wake up on Christmas morning and feel a bulging mysterious generously-filled football sock stuffed with surprises, fruit, nuts, PRESENTS !  God it was exciting, whether Santa did it or not.  At some point (12 – 13-14?) the sock was over, and I felt suddenly grown-up.

My wife Jenny was raised Catholic in North London and has a much more scarring tale of Santa Claus Not Coming To Town.  Her brother Jon, older, and Jenny herself at five, had been bothering their mother, Esther, about writing to Santa Claus, when would he be coming, what would he bring, would they meet him, could they see him, how was he going to get in, there wasn’t a chimney.  “Be quiet both of you !!” Esther suddenly screamed : “Father Christmas is dead !!!”  There was a shocked silence.  Esther decided to explain, I imagine their little faces were as shocked as it is possible to witness.  “He died over 300 years ago his real name is Saint Nicholas, so stop asking me about him it is just a story !!!”  What Esther perhaps hadn’t calculated was that Santa Claus, Father Christmas, St Nick and their avatars are a useful tool for keeping young children in line in December, perhaps earlier.  As the lyrics of the song go : “He’s making a list, he’s checking it twice, he’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice…

There were two younger sisters in the Christmasses following, Mandy and Lucy, and to protect them against a similar fate, Jon and Jenny kept up the Santa Claus myth, colluded in the cover story and even helped to fill the stockings on Christmas Eve.  But Jenny told me, today, that she never did have a stocking on Christmas morning, ever.  I have to confess that I felt sorry for her, and vowed that I would create that experience for her at some future date.  Next Christmas !

Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town was written by Tin Pan Alley partners John Frederick Coots (who also wrote Love Letters In The Sand) and Haven Gillespie (who also wrote You Go To My Head)  and it was performed live on the radio in November 1934.  The morning after the Eddie Cantor show there were over 10,000 requests for the sheet music, and it remains one of the biggest hits in popular music.  Covers include Perry Como in 1951, Four Seasons in 1963, The Jackson Five in 1970 and Bruce Springsteen in 1975 (1985 release), as well as Frank Sinatra, Lou Rawls, The Beach Boys, The Carpenters, Dolly Parton, Miley Cyrus, Bing Crosby, The Pointer Sisters, Justin Beiber and Mariah Carey among many many others.

I’ve chosen The Crystals version which appears on the famous LP  Phil Spector : A Christmas Gift For You simply because, like so many tracks on that glorious album, it is the best version to my ears, both in arrangement, feeling and enjoyability.  The LP was put together in Los Angeles with Spector’s own artists Darlene Love, The Ronettes, The Crystals and Bobb B. Soxx & The Blue Jeans backed by the world-famous “Wrecking Crew” in a production arrangement that mirrored the Detroit scene at Tamla Motown.

Jack Nitzsche, Darlene Love, Phil Spector recording The Christmas album in 1963

The Wrecking Crew (whose moniker is disputed by bassist Carol Kaye who claims it was invented in the 1990s by drummer Hal Blaine) were young session musicians at the beginning of an illustrious career which would see them backing Nancy Sinatra, The Beach Boys, Glen Campbell, The Mamas & The Papas, The 5th Dimension, The Carpenters and Simon & Garfunkel among others.   Here under the direction of Spector and Jack Nitzsche they were creating what would become known as “The Wall Of Sound” where everything including the kitchen sink was thrown into the mix and the resulting songs changed pop history, such as Be My Baby by The Ronettes (July 1963) which epitomises the effect, and on this LP,   the magnificent Sleigh Ride – an auditory and musical marvel of a piece of work, alongside The Crystals wonderful re-working of the standard Santa Claus Is coming To Town.

The Crystals

The Crystals were signed as teenage talent in 1961 from Central Commercial High School at E33rd St in New York City, and famously, Myrna Giraud, Barbara Alston and Mary Thomas recorded their first single There’s No Other (Like My Baby) in their prom dresses having been driven to the studio directly from their High School Prom in 1961.

They went on to cut three of the best singles of all time : Da Do Ron Ron, He’s A Rebel and Then He Kissed Me, all on Phil Spector’s Philles label, but their line-up changed constantly and Spector would sometimes put out records with The Crystals name on it and other singers such as Darlene Love or The Ronettes singing the song.  This tended to strain the relationship, if you can call svengali/teenage girl  “a relationship”.

Same Crystals line-up in their civvies

Eventually the group left for United Artists in 1964, but ironically all their best work was with the manipulative and oppressive pop genius Spector and his partner Jack Nitzsche.  The one constant in the constantly-changing group line-up was Dolores Dee Dee Kenniebrew who was also present at that famous first recording in Manhattan and she still sings with The Crystals today.

Dee Dee Kenniebrew

Their version of Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, recorded in 1963, was the first to change the chorus to take the first note off the one-beat, onto the off-beat giving it the drum break and the excitement we hear in the Motown versions, Springsteen‘s live take, The Beach Boys and all others since that date – more or less making earlier versions seem plodding and square.   Do we have to credit Spector with that ?  Or Nitzche ?

After The Brighton Beach Boys had been together for a few years the idea of performing a Christmas gig became irresistible, and after we’d worked out Brian Wilson’s  Little Saint Nick (itself a homage to Phil Spector like much of The Beach Boys early work) we looked at other songs from The Beach Boys Christmas Album, and this one leaped out and demanded an outing.   We’d been booked to play The Pavilion Theatre (poster above by Rory Cameron) which was as close as we ever got to cultural establishment respectability and we wanted to make an effort.  For that particular show I found an amazing triptych mural which my friend Jan Gage had painted for our  wedding reception – a three-part giant homage to Hokusai’s The Wave on which we had printed our invitations.  It felt appropriate to Catch A Wave and so it hung behind the drum kit.  Rather amazingly Jan Gage and her boyfriend Vince came down to Brighton for this show and it remained the only time a) that she saw the band and b) that we used that triptych because Jenny, rightly, said she wanted it preserved for all eternity rather than have it driven around to gigs in the back of a van.

Hokusai : The Wave

As for the song in question, we ended up doing a slightly star-spangled version arranged by Stephen Wrigley  which started like The Beach Boys with close vocal acapella, styled like The Jackson 5 with their underpinned harmony and finished with Springsteen – a Clemons-style raging baritone saxophone solo courtesy of Charlotte Glasson, in-between sounding absolutely nothing like The Crystals, but owing them a debt of arrangement.  I sing the bass on this song, from deep F to even deeper Bb.  We stole Clarence Clemons‘ baritone aside “You better be good for goodness sake” from the Springsteen version because we are frankly shameless musically, especially at Christmas.

Clarence Clemons & Bruce Springsteen

So Santa Claus Is Coming To Town this week (it is December the 21st 2015) and …he also isn’t.  We like to tell each other these stories.  We prefer stories to The Truth.  Obvious reasons.  Stories are better, good guys win, we live happily ever, we learn life lessons etc etc, all that.  Santa Claus is pretty harmless though isn’t he?  She ? Is he black ?  Malaysian ?  We are all Santa Claus aren’t we ?  Coming to Town.  Driving Home For Christmas.  Are you hanging up your stocking on the wall ?

Barbara, Dee Dee, La La and Fran

Enjoy your holiday, wherever you may be.

just for fun we nicked the harmonies from The Jackson 5:  

My Pop Life #37 : A Salty Dog – Procol Harum

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A Salty Dog   –   Procol Harum

We fired the gun, and burnt the mast, and rowed from ship to shore
The captain cried, we sailors wept: our tears were tears of joy
Now many moons and many junes have passed since we made land
A salty dog, this seaman’s log: your witness my own hand…

The sister show to Pet Sounds/Sgt Pepper which The Brighton Beach Boys developed was, by overwhelming public demand, a rendition of final Beatles LP Abbey Road.  We did this show three times, but the conundrum was always – what would we play in the first half?   In Year One, which I think was 2011, we played an LPs worth of tunes written by Glen Richardson and called it Pop Dreams – brilliant songs, beautifully composed and sung, a gig I sadly missed playing in due to work, but watched from the back of the church.   Glen didn’t want to repeat that exercise the following year so in 2012 we started to put together something we called “The 1969 Show”, playing songs that appeared in that glorious year alongside Abbey Road.   This led to irritating and tremendous rehearsals of Aquarius, Pinball Wizard, Wichita Lineman, Gimme Shelter, Space Oddity, Midnight Cowboy, The Boxer, My Cherie Amour, River Man, Crosstown Traffic, Blackberry Way, Something In The Air and The Liquidator/Return Of Django/Israelites.   A slideshow was produced.   It was a hit – some of the audience didn’t think it “gelled” – why should it?  Others thought it was a tremendous kaleidoscopic presentation of a great musical year.   And the following year an extra date was added to the fringe diary – the Rest of The 1969 Show where enthusiasts could hear extra selections from The Kinks, Creedence, The Archies, Mama Cass and Crosby Stills and Nash.

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1969 is a rewarding seam to mine for pop jewels.   My rather pleasing discovery while researching the show was this gem from Procol Harum, best-known of course for their huge 1967 hit A Whiter Shade Of Pale.    A Salty Dog was their third LP, and the title track was written by singer Gary Brooker with poet member Keith Reid providing the Melville-esque lyrics :

We sailed for parts unknown to man, where ships come home to die
No lofty peak, nor fortress bold, could match our captain’s eye
Upon the seventh seasick day we made our port of call
A sand so white, and sea so blue, no mortal place at all

Any song with seagull noises will get my vote.   The rather amazing chord sequence behind this verse structure can only be marvelled at in a pop context, sounding more like Sibelius or Mahler than chart music.  One for the musos then – here are those sixteen amazing chords :

Db-5                        Csus4     C           Cm7                       Bbsus4 Bb

“All hands on deck   we’ve run afloat”  I heard the captain cry    

Fm/Ab                  Fm              Fm7     Db-5                       E6

Explore the ship   replace the cook      Let no one leave alive

B/F#                     F#                          B        Bmaj7          B7

Across the straits   around the horn    How far can sailors fly?

E                           Em6/G                         B/F#             F#sus4 F#

A twisted path   our tortured course   And no one left alive

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Yes, that is a pastiche of the Capstan Full Strength cigarette packet.   This is the first song in My Pop Life to have been dissected with a chord chart but I only discovered it recently and I have become quite unreasonably obsessed with it as a piece of music.    There’s some fantastic footage of Gary Brooker singing this in 2009 in Denmark with a symphony orchestra and choir, quite wonderful.   Listen to his voice as the sailors see land in the final verse, it is very special.

I’ve always fancied myself as a bit of a seafaring chap, but evidence would suggest I’m more of a landlubber.   I have a very early memory of sitting in a long rowing boat in The Solent between my dad’s knees – a racing rowboat Cambridge v Oxford style – off the coast of Portsmouth where we lived at the time, the waves chopping all around us, the oar blades cutting through the water, the coxswain yelling “Stroke!” and the breathing of my dad and his team.  I must have been five, or six.  1963.  Couldn’t swim.   It was terrifying and exhilarating as we rowed under one of those black looming World War Two forts that sit in the sea down there.

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Conrad Ryle is probably the most comfortable person I know on sea water – oh and Robert Pugh of course, but I haven’t sailed with Bob yet.  Conrad has taken me out from Piddinghoe near Newhaven on his boat and I loved it, but I didn’t help much as Conrad pulled ropes and swung the sail and hoisted this and that.    Conrad and I went to school together, played in a band together, his family were very kind to me when my family were gently disintegrating in the early 70s…

I always talked about living by the sea, the sea the sea but there was little evidence that I wanted to spend any time ON IT.   I like looking at it out of the window.   Final proof came in 2010 when I was cast in one of those ‘small boat with sharks nearby’ films – shooting off Simonstown on The Cape of Good Hope with Halle Berry.   We boarded the craft at 8.00am every morning and stayed on board for lunch which was delivered by another boat coming alongside, shooting all afternoon both on board and occasionally in the water until the fading of the light, for six weeks straight.

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Filming Dark Tide with real Great Whites off South Africa

You’d think I would have got used to it.   We had a box of ginger for seasickness – biscuits, sweets, drinks.  You could tell if it was a rough day by looking at the box – always full in the morning, often decimated by lunchtime.   I felt seasick pretty often, but held it down.   I think Halle was sick on Day One but she’s game, and never complained.   We bonded over puke in fact.   What a beautiful lady – inside and out – the complete professional, courteous, charming, warm and honest.   The sea rolled on,  I refused to vomit, but then we went round and filmed on the other side of the Cape – the Atlantic side -and it was much much rougher.  The horrible thing about seasickness – as opposed to land puking – is that it doesn’t banish the nausea.  At all.

Maybe the nearest I got to salty dog status was when Jenny and I were sitting on the anchor of Admiral Lord Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory in Portsmouth, waiting for her train to London, and an undesirable separation.   But that’s for another story….