My Pop Life #130 : America – Simon & Garfunkel

America   –   Simon & Garfunkel

Let us be lovers we’ll marry our fortunes together

I’ve got some real estate here in my bag

So we bought a pack of cigarettes

and Mrs Wagner pies

and walked off to look for America…

It was some time in early 2015 when I became aware of the two Swedish sisters Johanna & Klara Söderberg who call themselves First Aid Kit covering this evergreen classic.  Clear, bright, bel canto voices with a precise harmonic shiver  : the song lived again in their youthful rendition.   It marked our first year living in New York City, two English actors who’d packed two suitcases and one cat each and upped and flown to the Big Apple on a whim in February 2014.   My wife Jenny and I had moved six times by the time I heard this cover of Simon & Garfunkel‘s song, from Harlem in the snow, to the top floor of a brownstone in Washington Avenue in Brooklyn in the deeper snow (and an encounter with fairy godmother Johanna), across the street to a sublet in an apartment block, to the Village in Manhattan, then Air Bob in Bed-Stuy, to Hall St in Clinton Hill, now next door in Fort Greene.  It was our third major stint looking for America.  First – 1992 Los Angeles for three years, Venice, West Hollywood and Green Cards.  Next – 2002 Los Angeles for another two years – Los Feliz.  Now New York.  Coming up for two years as I write this.

My first experience of America was in 1976 when my best friend Simon Korner and I hitch-hiked from New York to Los Angeles to Vancouver to Cape Cod.  It was our gap year – though it was called “a year off” back then.  We’d done our A-levels, got our University places sorted – him at Cambridge, me at LSE.  I’d then left home and gone to work in Laughton Lodge as a Nursing Assistant, a period I outlined briefly in My Pop Life #58.

Essentially I was required to keep an eye on a ward-full of 30 men of differing shapes and sizes, but all classified in 1975 as ‘Mentally Subnormal’.  Some of them were dangerous.  Some were catatonic.  Now they would be called clients with a learning difficulty.  All this for a later blog, but I mention it in passing.  I worked there from October through to April 1975, saving money to fly to New York with Simon, to go and look for America.

It was terribly exciting, we were 18 going on 19 and from a small Sussex town called Lewes.  Seeing the skyscrapers of Manhattan, the Smithsonian, the wide open prairies of Nebraska, the Rocky Mountains, Monument Valley and the Arizona desert was an unparalleled experience for two young men, and it changed and bonded us both.    Paul Simon did a similar trip with Kathy Chitty in 1964.   I kept a diary of the trip and at one point in New Mexico wrote a kind of Ode :

America ! America ! The skies all seem to say !

Or are they saying something else, like : “Let’s be on our way” ?

 It’s rather hard to tell because it’s cloudy out today

But Ralph and Sigh don’t mind because they’re IN THE USA !!

Fairly safe to say there wasn’t a budding Paul Simon hiding within at that point.   It’s more of a Soviet Farm Song satire.

Perhaps not surprisingly this song always makes me feel emotional for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on.  The ultimate line : “…counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike, they’ve all come to look for America…” is so simple and ordinary yet it has a poetic magic that lifts the song into a mythical hymn for the soul.  Of all those people searching for their best life on this vast continent.  Plenty wrong with the USA of course which I won’t rehearse here.  this is about the other side of the coin.   The optimism of America, constantly encouraging, constantly asking you to make the very best of yourself.  The reason why we keep coming back.    The hope.  The interior yearning made physical reality.

We had Simon & Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits in our house all through childhood, Mum must have bought it.  This song didn’t stand out to me at the age of ten or eleven, I was hooked on Sound Of Silence, Parsley Sage Rosemary & Thyme, Homeward Bound.  But it must have crept under my skin because it has become one of my favourite songs of all time.  Again, I’m not sure why, but it has a strange ineffable power : unusually there is no rhyme at all in the lyrics, and the chorus is just one line, slightly altered each time “…look for America”.    Paul Simon evidently knows that from the specific and the individual experience comes the universal : the details of the Greyhound Bus trip from Pittsburgh which had started as a hitch-hiking journey from Saginaw, Michigan, the cigarettes, the jokes, the youthful joy which turns to melancholy in the last verse :

Kathy I’m lost” I said, though I knew she was sleeping..I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why

the reference to smoking pot “some real estate here in my bag” and the the space between the two voices above all lend this three-minute masterpiece a unique power.  In particular the middle verse :

So I looked at the scenery, she read her magazine and the moon rose over an open field..”

has no equal in pop writing for me.  There is just so much space in the song, and the listener fills it with their own fantasies, desires and feelings.  But mainly with their own bruised optimism.

graffitti on an abandoned building in Saginaw

I thought I would post the First Aid Kit version because I became rather obsessed with it, but after a few months of listening to hip hop and electronica I went back to it.  It still sounds bright and beautiful, but it is in the end a cover of a classic.  There are technical issues – chopped bar lines and other things I won’t bore you with, Paul Simon’s song is best served in the end by Art Garfunkel and himself, some acoustic guitars, a wandering soprano saxophone and a melodic bassline.  Larry Knechtel on Hammond organ and Hal Blaine on the drums join them on this recording, but essentially the space created between all of these elements is where the song’s beauty lies, which the Swedish sisters have understood so well.  David Bowie made a similar empty echoing version immediately after 9/11 which I post below.

My other memory of this song is the film Almost Famous of course, a film about music with one of the finer soundtracks I can remember.  The closing credits roll over The Beach Boys’ “Feel Flows“the closing song on their 1971 LP Surf’s Up and well outside the 20 Golden Greats arena.   Simon & Garfunkel’s song accompanies the young hero leaving home, looking for America.  One of those cliches that always lands.

Simon & Garfunkel 1966

Paul Simon is of course one of the finest songwriters of any era.  I sang his solo praises in My Pop Life #89 .  The combination he had with Art Garfunkel was immaculate though and unlikely to be bettered as a vehicle for his amazing songs.  I think they fell out probably – and unspoken issues kept them apart aside from one remarkable song My Little Town and a concert in Central Park in 1981 when they tried to heal the rift to no avail.

Carousel Singers at the Unitarian Church Brighton 2013

Towards the end of my Brighton period, around 2013 I suppose, I joined a group run by Julia Roberts called The Carousel Singers.  I was suggested by ace percussionist Paul Gunter who played for a while with The Brighton Beach Boys and is a senior graduate of Stomp – because Carousel – or rather Julia – were looking for a pianist who could accompany a choir of learning-disabled adults.  My year with Carousel was extraordinary, funny, moving and occasionally sad.  We’d meet every Wednesday evening in the Unitarian Church on New Road in the centre of Brighton.  Julia, Paul, another musician Gabrielle, graduate Karis and me.  My instinct was always to push the singers further, assume that they could do things that perhaps they hadn’t been asked to do before, stretch them out a bit.  And we used to write songs together, as a group.  In particular the choir members would come up with the lyrics, and I would supply some kind of tune and chords to go with them.  The first time we did this, for a song we called Song For Iain,  I used a simple descending F to C bassline which pleases the ear and sounds very POP, but for the second song I just couldn’t get ‘America’ out of my brain, and blatantly lifted chunks of melody for the choir to sing.  Fran in particular got it, and always remembered the tune from one week to the next.  Others joined her.  Others again could scarcely talk let alone sing, but it was a group which looked out for each other and didn’t judge, but always supported each other.  I learned a huge amount from working with these people, who just 40 years earlier would have been on a locked ward in a Mental Hospital being dosed-up with various drugs.   The Carousel Singers all have a level of independence, and a huge reservoir of compassion combined with a lack of judgement of other people’s ability and capability.  It was extraordinarily moving.  I do believe that we could learn a great deal from adults and children with learning difficulties.

Meanwhile I’m still looking for America.  Wish me luck.

Simon & Garfunkel :

First Aid Kit get an ovation from Paul Simon :

the David Bowie video isn’t the 9/11 one but hey !

My Pop Life #111 : Heroes & Villains : The Beach Boys

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Heroes & Villains   –   The Beach Boys

I’ve been in this town so long that back in the city I’ve been taken for lost & gone & unknown for a long long time…


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This extraordinary creation was one of the songs on The Beach Boys 20 Golden Greats, one of the handful of LPs in our council house in Sussex in the mid 70s.  The album pulled together all the big singles, and had a couple of interesting choices including this song, which we also had on 45rpm Capitol Records black label 7-inch from 1967 when it was released.  My mum must have bought it – I was 10 years old in ’67.

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Back in those days, The Beach Boys were a chart-pop act for me, even when Simon and I hitch-hiked around the USA in the summer of 1976 the great discovery was their greatest hits LP Endless Summer which contained songs I hadn’t heard before like Be True To Your School and the exquisite jewel Girls On The Beach.   I had no interest or awareness in their LPs until I got to college later in 1976 and my girlfriend Mumtaz had the LP Holland from 1973.  I think Surf’s Up (1971) was the next Beach Boys LP I was aware of, during the LSE days, but they remained a singles band for me apart from those two exceptions.   Pet Sounds you ask ?  Didn’t hear it – in full – until the early 1990s when Jenny and I were living in Los Angeles.    Perhaps it was because they are the quintessential LA band that I bought the box-set Good Vibrations in 1993 in Amoeba Records – an Aladdin’s cave of musical treasure – and played it endlessly due to the immense discoveries thereon – including the Pet Sounds songs.  Featured image

The 1966 LP Pet Sounds is for another post – but for now I’ll simply acknowledge it as an extraordinary piece of music – a deep, rich, carefully arranged and orchestrated work of delicate beauty, terrible sadness & infinite fascination.  It was Beach Boy’s head honcho and songwriter Brian Wilson’s response to hearing the Beatles’ Rubber Soul, an inspirational leap into the studio and the possibilities of playing pop music in a completely different way.   The Beatle’s responded with Sgt Pepper,  itself influenced by Pet Sounds, but while they were recording Pepper, Brian Wilson was working on his own follow-up to the Pet Sounds album.   One of the problems for The Beach Boys was that Pet Sounds hadn’t shifted large numbers of units, and even today it is considered complex and less obvious than most of the music of 1966.

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Brian salvaged his pure pop credentials with the single Good Vibrations in October ’66 which outsold the Beatles and won Single Of The Year in all the polls.  This pop rivalry was pushing the respective songwriters to unheard-of peaks of creativity.  Good Vibrations was recorded at four different studios in Los Angeles and endlessly polished before release – but it is an undoubted masterpiece which was Brian Wilson’s first installment on the Pet Sounds follow-up LP – to be called “Smile”.    The album never came out.   But the second single Heroes & Villains did – and it is another towering slice of baroque harmony pop which goes where no 7″ single has gone before.   Apparently the bigwigs at Capitol Records in Hollywood weren’t impressed with it (??) and the start of Brian’s great mental decline can be measured from this song.   Which kind of makes this a peak moment in 1967.

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I’ve always been obsessed with Heroes & Villains.   Jimi Hendrix called The Beach Boys ‘psychedelic barbershop‘, and some people took that as an insult.   But it applies here.   The vocal arrangement is second-to-none in a pop milieu.   It sounds impossibly complex, but the Beach Boys would happily sing it live.   They had a natural blend – three brothers and a cousin plus one mate – and in a live setting they could pull off the most beautiful layered harmonies either acapella or rockin’ out.  The 1993 Good Vibrations box-set though had something else going on – at least 3 other songs called “Heroes & Villains” with different words, different tempos, different arrangements, little pieces of music using parts of the song like strands of sound, stunning piano shapes, harpsichord modulations, vocal experiments, percussive expressions, doo-wop, strings, animal noises, hand-claps, swoons, cantinas, laughs, a whole universe of sound.  A series of clues.  This was like a suite of songs all with the same title.  It’s just a little bit mental.  The final release of SMiLE in 2011 had over 30 tracks called Heroes & Villains.

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Indulgent ?  LSD ?  Genius  ?  Or just unable to settle – a spasm in D minor which couldn’t be resolved.  Probably all of these.  Brian Wilson was mentally disintegrating as he was writing his greatest work, and the pressure to compete with Sgt Pepper, the lack of support from other band members and the record company, and Brian’s own inability to shape the endlessly brilliant pieces of music he was giving birth to into a coherent whole meant that the SMiLE project was finally ditched in May 1967.   It wouldn’t surface again until 2004 when I saw the Brian Wilson band playing it live onstage at The Royal Festival Hall in London – a world premiere.  I went to see it a further five times that week.  It is clearly a masterwork in the pop medium, but apparently, isn’t as it was originally intended.  Sadly no-one can remember what was originally intended least of all Brian himself.  My own theories are centred on this song, it was clearly a musical thread which was to run throughout the work, but don’t forget that in those days all tape was analog and pieced together one part at a time – not like today’s digital world where we can shuffle pieces of music at the touch of a click and experiment with what sounds best.  Brian had written and recorded a musical puzzle which no-one could put together.  He spent the first few months of 1967 shaping Heroes & Villains into a reasonably regular pop song, and it remains a high water mark of musical joy.

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Original artwork for the aborted SMiLE LP by Frank Holmes

In September 1967 a Beach Boys album called Smiley Smile was released, with Good Vibrations and Heroes & Villains on it, and a few survivors of the abandoned project.   It is an average album, a cobbled-together record-company compromise, not a masterpiece, and not a Pet Sounds 2.   It would be 2011 when Alan Boyd and Mark Linnett would finally put together the box-set The Smile Sessions with the Beach Boys approval.  It is everything I hoped it would be, a fitting companion piece to Pet Sounds, and better in many ways, even more adventurous musically  containing humour, American history (care of lyricist Van Dyke Parks) and the masterpiece Surf’s Up – a kind of choral farewell.  Wilson called SMiLE ‘a teenage symphony to God‘ and I can’t better that LSD-drenched description.

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Carl Wilson, Al Jardine, Brian Wilson, Mike Love & Dennis Wilson in 1967

When Stephen Wrigley and I formed The Brighton Beach Boys in early 2002 we started with In My Room, Surfer Girl and Surfin’ USA.   Joined by Glen Richardson, Adrian Marshall, Charlotte Glasson, Rob Breskal, Rory Cameron and Theseus Gerrard we did our first gig later that year, in the Hanbury Ballroom.   Paul Gunter joined on percussion, Rob departed and Tom Arnold arrived.   Andy Doe joined on French Horn, left and was replaced by Dom Nunns.   We started doing some of the more complex songs.  Wouldn’t It Be Nice.  And Your Dream Comes True.   And – yes : Heroes & Villains.   Glen did all of our vocal arrangements and taught us the notes, and week by painstaking yet thrilling week we pieced the song together.   I sang the lead part – it’s right in my range – and it’s the easiest part – and we wheeled it out one night in a live show.   It brought the house down because it sounds so impossibly complex, Glen’s brilliant arrangement giving us each a specific vocal job.   And the song itself is so thrilling, a rush of words and music.   It was an absolute privilege to perform it each time we played live.

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Charlotte, Adrian, Stephen, Stevie, me, Rory, Dom, Glen, Theseus – Herne Bay 26.08.06

Later on the band would be introduced to beat poet and lyricist Stephen J. Kalinich who wrote a number of songs with Dennis Wilson, and later with Brian too.  Stevie was in England for a mini-tour, and he sat in on a BBB rehearsal then travelled to a gig with us in Herne Bay, Kent, which I’ll save for another post.   But I’ve been friends with Stevie ever since and we always spend time together when I am in Los Angeles.  He is a gentle and lyrical soul with a unique sensitivity to life which he expresses in words and poems.  Featured image

Stevie in Los Angeles 2012

Again I will save Stevie for another post (see My Pop Life #169) but he introduced me to Mark Linnett while Stevie was living in his house in Glendale in 2009-2010.    Stevie also introduced me to other members of the wider Beach Boys family including David Marks, guitarist on the first five LPs, Marilyn Wilson-Rutherford, Brian’s first wife and her husband Daniel, and also the wonderful Alan Boyd, The Beach Boys’ archivist and the only person that all former and current members actually talk to.   Alan is a beautiful man with a fine collection of vintage celluloid and 1920s pop music and it was he who laboured night and day to put the final 2011 SMiLE Sessions Box-Set together, with Mark Linnett engineering.   He won a totally-deserved Grammy for his pains.   I’ve talked to Alan about the Heroes & Villains conundrum and he agrees that the musical pieces are the cornerstone of SMiLE but the many parts mean that it is impossible to know how to assemble it satisfactorily or otherwise.   Alan has spent more time with this song than anyone since Brian Wilson in 1966-67, and I think it drove him a little bit bonkers trying to piece it all together.   In the end Heroes & Villains takes up a whole side of vinyl on the box-set, its different parts laid out for us to all to hear and make of what we will.   It is astonishing.   Me – I always liked the original single, but Al Jardine always said that the actual original was way better.    I’ll leave you with the Stereo Mix from the 2011 SMiLE Sessions.  It’s a little bit like the one The Brighton Beach Boys used to sing live, and perhaps will again one day…

My Pop Life #71 : Song For Sharon – Joni Mitchell

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Song For Sharon   –   Joni Mitchell

…I went to Staten Island
To buy myself a mandolin
And I saw the long white dress of love
On a storefront mannequin

Big boat chuggin’ back with a belly full of cars
All for something lacy
Some girl’s going to see that dress
And crave that day like crazy…

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The first Joni Mitchell song I heard was Both Sides Now – but sung by Judy Collins –  “…it’s clouds illusions I recall, I really don’t know clouds at all…” It was 1968 and I was living in a small village in East Sussex with my Mum and two younger brothers.  We had Radio One on all day.  It seemed like a sad song.

The second Joni Mitchell song I heard was Stardust – but sung by Crosby Stills Nash & Young – “…we are stardust we are golden, and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden…”   It was 1970 and unbeknown to me I was in the last few weeks of my idyllic village life.  It was a wise song, biblical yet green, and also rather yearning.

The third Joni Mitchell song I heard was Big Yellow Taxi – sung by Joni herself – “…they took all the trees, put ’em in a tree museum, then they charge all the people a dollar and a half just to see ’em..”  It was 1970 and she sounded like a teenage girl, but she was already on her 3rd album.   I was 13 and billeted with Pete Smurthwaite and his Mum Sheila in Lewes since we’d got evicted from the village house for not paying rent.  This song was an eyes-open description of a catastrophe.

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The first Joni Mitchell LP I bought was Court and Spark in 1974 with its brilliant title track, the thrilling Raised On Robbery, the swooning Help Me and the stunning Free Man In Paris  “…stoking the star-maker machinery behind the popular song…”.    I was in Hailsham,  had a new young sister, and I was a late-flowering 16-yr-old glam-rock hippy.  Joni was urgent, caustic, clever and brilliant to mine ears.

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LSE 76-79.  “Blue”  The masterpiece.  Much later, in the 90s this would become one of mine and Jenny’s top LPs, top five listens that would go on the turntable, or later the CD player on a daily basis – All I Want, Carey, A Case Of You, River, The Last Time I Saw Richard.   The shapes of those songs, of those melodies, the sense of a fully-formed musical genius spilling out her feelings is a pure joy.   Jenny sang A Case Of You for Amanda Ooms at a Bohemia Special Birthday Party one night in Brighton – acapella – and years later Glen sang “River” one Christmas at a Brighton Beach Boys gig at The Old Market accompanying himself on piano.  Two magical moments from a magical LP.

And over the years I’ve filled in the dots, bought The Summer Of Hissing Lawns, For The Roses, Clouds, Hejira, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, Mingus, Chalk Mark In A Rain Storm, Taming The Tiger, Ladies Of The Canyon and Herbie Hancock‘s 2007 album The River which is a jazz tribute to her music.  There is a wonderful depth to her music, both lyrically profound, often startlingly honest, and the music itself, rhythmically loose and swinging yet played with such crisp feel by Joni herself and the amazing musicians she assembles to play her creations.  Every album is worth examining, plunging in, submerging, re-emerging refreshed and moved.

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No song of Joni’s touches me more deeply than Song For Sharon, from the 1976 LP Hejira.  It’s very much set in New York City, opening on the Staten Island Ferry in the opening verse. She sees a wedding dress in a shop window, and this triggers an 8-minute meditation on love and marriage, success, family and dreams.

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Shine your light on me, Miss Liberty
Because as soon as this ferry boat docks
I’m headed to the church to play Bingo
Fleece me with the gamblers’ flocks

That’s a pretty astounding lyric, using the double meaning of “fleece” but she tops it in the next verse, talking about gambling with her heart :

I can keep my cool at poker
But I’m a fool when love’s at stake
Because I can’t conceal emotion
What I’m feeling’s always written on my face

There’s a gypsy down on Bleecker Street
I went in to see her as a kind of joke
And she lit a candle for my love luck
And eighteen bucks went up in smoke

Joni is laughing at herself here and goes on to talk about leaving her man behind at a “North Dakota Junction” and moving to the Big Apple to “face the dream’s malfunction“…why don’t her relationships last, why isn’t she married ?  The song, admitted by Mitchell to be written whilst on cocaine, fades in and out of her past memories, to her present on the Ferry, to her reactions to a woman friend drowning herself and the depression that then flooded in, and the advice from those around her on how to cope.   Then she’s back in teenage Canada again:

When we were kids in Maidstone, Sharon
I went to every wedding in that little town
To see the tears and the kisses
And the pretty lady in the white lace wedding gown

And walking home on the railroad tracks
Or swinging on the playground swing
Love stimulated my illusions
More than anything

So Sharon is her childhood friend, and is married with children and a farm.  Joni has never settled down.  The contrast for Joni is stark and she explores it further, deeper…

And when I went skating after Golden Reggie
You know it was white lace I was chasing
– Chasing dreams –
Mama’s nylons underneath my cowgirl jeans

He showed me, first you get the kisses
And then you get the tears
But the ceremony of the bells and lace
Still veils this reckless fool here

Joni is alone, and it seems to her, terminally so.  She actually had been married in 1965 to Michigan folk singer Chuck Mitchell, just after giving up her out-of-wedlock first child for adoption, (Little Green on “Blue” is about this girl) but the relationship had lasted less than 16 months.  After her affair with Graham Nash of The Hollies she hooked up with David Crosby and then others but none of these affairs took root.    Sam Shepherd, Jackson Browne, Don Alias, none of them could couple with her restless spirit, so evocatively captured in the swooning backing vocals and sexy rolling shuffle of the rhythm guitar, played by Joni herself throughout the winding sinuous storytelling of Song For Sharon.   The song is, in its unfolding of doubt and longing, its honesty and questioning, a masterpiece.  Or should that be mistresspiece ?  Her mother suggests ecology to counter the blues but –

Well, there’s a wide wide world of noble causes
And lovely landscapes to discover
But all I really want right now
Is find another lover…

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Last summer, 2014, Jenny’s older sister Marlyn came to visit us from Grenada where she is lives as a nun and teaches teenagers.  Or more accurately, a Franciscan Sister Of The Sorrowful Mother.   We were sub-letting in Washington Avenue at that point, and I slept on the sofa for ten days.  One day we took the ferry from DUMBO (Down Under Manhattan-Brooklyn Overpass) to Wall St, walked down a few blocks and boarded the Staten Island Ferry which is a giant yellow edifice towering over Battery Park and facing due south.  It is a free service, run by the City and runs 24/7.  From it, you get the most impressive views of Downtown Manhattan receding, and it chugs right past the Statue Of Liberty too, and Ellis Island.  Marlyn, Jenny and I had a little walk along the Staten Island shore, saw the 9/11 Memorial and then took the ferry back, Joni Mitchell’s beautiful clear voice singing through my head all the way across the harbour.   Marlyn is a beautiful woman, so open and sweet-natured, not heavily promoting her faith at all, but supported and strengthened by it.  We laughed a lot during her visit.

There are two versions of Song For Sharon below – the original from Hejira, stunning, eternal, majestic, then below that a live version from Wembley 1983 with an entirely different arrangement, no backing vocals, rocked-up, bold, brilliant.

…It seems we all live so close to that line, and so far from satisfaction…

My Pop Life #59 : Looks Is Deceiving – The Gladiators

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Looks Is Deceiving   –   The Gladiators

…old time people dem used to say when short mouth tell you, you can’t hear

so when long mouth tell you, you must feel it feel it…

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What we used to call a cracking tune.  1979 and Virgin Records released a sampler LP of Jamaican roots reggae called The Front Line, with a fist holding barbed wire, blood trickling down the wrist.  It cost 69p.   This was one of the tracks – there were two from The Gladiators, the other being the mighty Pocket Money which I also tag below because youtube has the great 12 inch version complete with Dub Version.   Weird to think now how influential reggae was in the late 70s, how much was played on the radio – John Peel in particular was religious about it, and people bought the records too, in 12″ format and albums – not just Marley who was huge, but Culture, Burning Spear, Dennis Brown, The Mighty Diamonds, Augustus Pablo, Lee Perry, U-Roy.  Much weed was smoked to accompany this music, indeed Dub in particular turned out to be the perfect music to get stoned to, perhaps because the people making it were themselves stoned.  A kind of perfect circle.  Heady righteous days.  Home-grown reggae was having its moment too from Black Slate to Aswad to Misty in Roots and Steel Pulse.  Linton Kwesi Johnson would appear in 79.

At the end of my 3rd year at LSE I had scored a pretty average 2:2 degree in Law, due to not studying particularly hard, which meant I was an LLB or Bachelor of Law.  And so I would remain for all eternity because this marks the precise moment when I turned my back on the law and became an actor.  I had promised that I would.  Except that :  I didn’t.   You see, I had this rather harsh image of acting being rather like a pedigree horse-race where I was the horse, wearing blinkers, running, running, racing.   I thought to myself, probably while stoned : I’d better have a look round before I put those blinkers on.  And so it was that I moved into the flat at Tower Mansions, 134 West End Lane where Pete Thomas and Sali Beresford had two rooms to let.  I’d met them through LSE Ents, gigs, drugs, college events, but mainly musical sympathies.  The other flatmate was Nick Partridge (now Sir Nick!) who’d been at Keele, an amiable knowledgeable and sweet man. We were all out of college and on the rampage in North London.   We were in a bit of a gang too : Colin Jones, red hair, glasses & fuzzy beard who taught me how to drive, Tony Roose an old mate of Pete’s with whom I went to Belfast in 1981, John Vincent, shy and sweet but deadly with a frisbee, Andy Cornwell, alpha groover, edging towards the Legalise Cannabis Campaign and permanent tickets for all gigs in London.  All from the LSE except for Nick, who fitted in without a hint of catching up or “fitting in”.  And of course Mumtaz, my girlfriend, who’d left LSE 3 years earlier and was now almost an actual solicitor.

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I became a painter and decorator over that summer, working in Pinner for a businessman and his wife.  I think that’s when I became addicted to amphetamine sulphate in the form of blues.  But I rather suspect that’s for another story,  we’re on the weed and the reggae here.  The evening sessions rolling joints on record sleeves like More Songs About Buildings And Food by Talking Heads or One World by John Martyn, inhaling, passing to the left, listening to reggae, loving it a lot, playing backgammon, talking politics and music.  Out of the window, West End Lane -and three railways lines.  I had a plan – to save up enough money to take another year off, travelling – this time with brother Paul through South America…

The song Looks Is Deceiving is a series of Jamaican sayings that are received wisdom from the elders, older than the Bible (and rastafarians are really fond of the bible).  Don’t under-rate no man.  Don’t watch the tool what him can do – watch the man that behind it.  The man laugh first – him no laugh, the man laugh last – catch it full.  The cow don’t know what him tail for til the butcher cut it off.  

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The Gladiators, being rastafarians, are making their records in Babylon, so they give it to us in a parable.  On Pocket Money – another outstanding slice of roots reggae – they take the Old Testament and preach – from Genesis to Exodus…my sheep heard my voice… hypocrites evil doers, beware of those unseen eyes…then you feel like running away from yourself…Jah will cut you down !  A good friend is better than pocket money…

At this moment in time The Gladiators – Albert Griffiths on lead guitar, Clinton Fearon on bass, Gallimore Sutherland on rhythm, (all three singing) were backed by a stunning Studio One session band with Sly Dunbar on drums, Lloyd Parks on bass, Sticky Thompson on percussion, Ansel Collins on keys and Earl Lindo on synthesizer.  The great Joe Gibbs mixed, Tony Robinson produced for Virgin.   Pure greatness.

My Pop Life #39 : Knocks Me Off My Feet – Stevie Wonder

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Knocks Me Off My Feet   –   Stevie Wonder

…but there’s something ’bout your love… that makes me weak and knocks me off my feet…

It is an indication of how musically unformed I was at the time that I didn’t rush out and buy Talking Book when it came out in 1972 –  I saw Stevie Wonder singing Superstition on Top Of The Pops one Thursday evening.  I liked it – and ‘You Are The Sunshine Of My Life‘ – but it wasn’t until I was 16 and hanging around with girls that the magic started to work it’s course under my skin, into my bones.  Tanya Myers was in the year below me and friends with other girls that Simon knew mainly called Jane.  We were at Tanya’s house in 1973 – she was gorgeous but I was with Miriam Ryle at this point – and we listened to Innervisions from start to finish.  Quite soon after that I bought it, and Talking Book, then late in 1976 Songs In The Key Of Life, a double album with an extra single inside the packaging, 21 songs in all.  By then I had also heard Fulfillingness’ First Finale since Mumtaz owned it and we listened to it a lot, I think at some point in my mid 20s (the soul years) I bought Music Of My Mind from 1971.   

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Thus we have the run of LPs from 71-76 that represent a Himalayan mountain range of musical excellence, with Songs In the Key Of Life being most folk’s pinnacle moment.  It’s hard to have favourites with Stevie Wonder, but mine is Innervisions.   And if you go back to 1970 there’s another superb LP called Where I’m Coming From which was his final LP under the first contract with Tamla Motown and is the true beginning of Stevie making the music he wanted to make, rather like Marvin Gaye his label stablemate, who made What’s Goin’ On in the same year, with the same desire to stretch out beyond the pop confines of Motown.  And beyond 1976 is the pause for breath before the brilliant but uneven indulgence of Secret Life Of Plants in 1979 and 1980’s genuine masterpiece Hotter Than July and on into the 1980s with more wonderful music (Overjoyed is outright stunning) right up to the present day.  A Time 2 Love was released in 2005 and is a five star piece of writing and singing, a really great LP that everyone inexplicably ignored.  But critical focus has always been on that run of five albums from 71-76 when Stevie wrote every song (some co-writes) played almost every instrument, arranged and produced every song after teaching himself how to play every instrument (and he’s an excellent drummer as youtube will testify).  Of course the list of credits on Songs.. is as long as your arm though, trumpet players, vibes, harps, singers.

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I’ve spent a reasonable amount of time sitting at a piano trying to play Stevie Wonder songs.  There are chord books.  I’ve got three of them.   Before the internet of course.  I think “Golden Lady” was the first one I could play all the way through.  I learned about complicated music via Stevie Wonder.  The Beatles Songbook taught me the major, the minor, the sixth and occasionally the seventh or major seventh.  Stevie Wonder taught me the minor 9th(last word of “you are the sunshine of my life), the diminished 5th (My Cherie Amour), the Gminor7th/ Eb bass (Golden Lady), the Bbminor9(11) (Lately).   You’re into an arena where each chord voicing can be written any number of ways.  I had to count down the stave to find out  what they are.  The chords sound amazing, stretched, deep, rich.   Apparently he learned keyboards at Hitsville USA in Detroit singing hits with The Funk Brothers, (Motown’s backing band of jazzers who played on every song the label produced) “he’d come up to me and ask me ‘what chord is that – show me‘ said Earl Van Dyke the main keyboard player.

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I’ve seen Stevie live three times.  First time : Wembley Arena, 1990.  Second time 02 London 2009. Third time last Sunday April 12th 2015 Barclays Centre Atlantic Avenue Brooklyn.  It’s a basketball arena so it’s like sitting inside a nutshell, tight, steep sides, all great views.  We had floor seats because we’d missed this show in October at Madison Square Garden, thinking a friend would be able to get us in, sometimes in life You Have To Buy The Ticket.  So these were “expensive” in the vernacular but I would have paid triple, quintuple.  It was overwhelming.

He came onstage with India Arie guiding him and stood still – to a standing ovation naturally.  He thanked us and said it was his honour to be able to play the show tonight for us.  It made me wonder how old he is, a question that went up and down our row of seats throughout the show.  When he smiles he looks under 40 years old.  At other points, singing blues, he looked 80.  He spoke softly about wanting to play us the whole of his 1976 masterpiece Songs In The Key Of Life, then sat down at the keyboard and the concert began.  Immediate goosebumps, eyewater and hairs on the back of the neck rising as the singers moaned the opening harmonies to Love’s In Need Of Love Today. “Good morn or evening friends, here’s your friend the announcer…”  I was crying by this point, 30 seconds into the show.

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So hard to place into readable words what was happening at this show.   So just a few facts before I melt into hyperbole.  Village Ghetto Land had a twelve-piece string section.  Contusion showcased the guitar players in a red-hot jazz funk workout.  Sir Duke destroyed the building when the six horn players stood up and stabbed it to death – we could feel it all over, everyone was on their feet dancing and stayed there for the irresistible groove of I Wish when we all transported ourselves back to childhood for the song.  Then I was in tears again for Knocks Me Off My Feet which is one of the first songs I learned on the piano, and is in my Stevie top five.   Then he took a noodle on the piano and started making the singers copy his vocal trills.  One at a time, talking to them, mimicking their voices, making them sing complex vocal melodies that he made up on the spot.  At one point the three women stage right – who were all unfeasibly gorgeous and busty by the way – broke into En Vogue’s Hold On before Stevie stopped them and told them to be quiet.  He was in such a great mood.  Then he got the lead violinist – a local chap – stand up and play, solo.  Believe me when I say he took his moment, astonishing work.  Then Stevie stood up and took the mic and the sharp sad strings of Pastime Paradise sliced through the arena, as the band were joined by a choir for the final heart-rending moments.

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Summer Soft was immaculate, Ordinary Pain was fierce, then on came India Arie in a science fiction dress and hat to help him sing Saturn, one of my favourite songs.   Then Stevie stood up unassisted and walked across to the stand-up joanna, or tack piano, honky-tonk to you.   A ripple of relieved applause made him turn “What you clapping for?  You think I’m not gonna make it?”  We laughed.  “I been lying about being blind for the last two years – I can see y’all!’  and into latin-jazz showtune Ebony Eyes, complete with talkbox tube guitar effect and cracking sax solo and we were into the interval.

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Everyone’s eyes were glazed, people were smiling, Tony Gerber and I were stunned, sat down, Lynn Nottage and Jenny went to the ladies together.  The french harmonica player Frédéric Yonnet who played the opening to Have A Talk With God was talking with his friends just in front of us and I thank him for the gig, he thanks Stevie.   Stevie was trying so hard to be ordinary, joking, using a faux english accent, messing about musically but then in the middle of a song I would find myself staring at him singing and thinking “OH MY GOD IT’S STEVIE WONDER”.

Part two opened with Stevie introducing us to his grand-daughter who is about 2 years old and said ‘Hello’ which took us into Isn’t She Lovely and the greatest harmonica playing I have ever witnessed in my life.  More tears, another highlight.  Somehow the next song – un-noticed by me usually – was even better, even more emotional.  Joy Inside My Tears became a church-hall testimony as Stevie pounded the keyboard and shook his fists at the sky and the crowd roared its approval.  Amazing moments.  Black Man continued the hot-tempo passion as the band moved into funk workout mode and steam started rising from the stage.  Jenny shouted “Harriet Tubman – A Black Woman” at Lynn at the appropriate moment.  Now they were using some of the original sounds and quotes from the LP and as we slid slinkliy into All Day Sucker, which is funk cubed, the roof was being raised.   Stevie then stood up with his harmonica and walked over to the side of the stage and performed the quirky exotic instrumental Easy Goin’ Evening with the other harmonica player and the sax player.  This was a moment to treasure, I’ve never heard anything like it.  It sounded like a gypsy lament.  You could hear the proverbial pin drop.  India Arie and singer Jessica Cruz joined him for Ngiculela – Es Una Historia – I Am Singing which was beautiful and joyful and happy.  All the actual songs from the LP Songs In The Key Of Life – the 21 jewels in the crown – were presented with incredible attention to detail, real passion and love and clearly the players were all experts.  They each had a place in the sun, a moment to themselves, and they all took it with pride and aplomb.

Then, Stevland Morris, 64 years old (Jenny correctly guessed) back centre stage, produced an odd-looking lap instrument – a zither ? that appeared to have at least 12 strings and sounded like an electric guitar with effects, but he played it like a piano.  Although it had a fretboard.  He started chatting to us.  He started playing notes, anything, noodling.  “We’re musicians, we like to jam”.  It’s called a harpejji.   I heard Yesterday, Mrs Robinson, and many other snatches of melody that I can’t remember already – two days later ! – before settling on the four-chord cycle of Curtis Mayfield’s People Get Ready and India Arie joined him as he covered the whole song.  Then he asked India to sing Wonderful her own tribute song to Stevie.  He liked that. He asked us if we liked it, and we said yes, so he asked us to sing along to Tequila a 1958 hit from The Champs (!)  (You’ll know it.)  Next was Michael Jackson’s The Way You Make Me Feel and we were in Stevie Karaoke land.  He made us sing (ladies first, then gentlemen) a melody line that he’d just made up.  We belted it out.  These excursions into covers, improvisations and chat seemd like a way of taking the monumentality out of the show.  A hugely influential double-LP played live as if it were a classical piece  – which it is obviously – interrupted by rehearsed jams.  Chat.  Jokes jokes.  But they only served to deepen the intimacy already present in our  knowledge and love for the LP, carried inside us for years as a treasure, now unfolding before us, not as an edifice, but as an old friend, a jam session in Stevie’s sound world.  His continual reference to his blindness had the same effect : “I see it how I hear it” .   But the monumental feeling remained : the temple of love was real.

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And then we were hushed and Stevie explained that the world’s premier harpist who’d played on the album in 1976 – a black woman called Dorothy Ashby – would be accompanying him on If It’s Magic, but that since she died in 1986 they would be using the original music from the LP as a backing track. Stevie sang it perfectly, mimicking his 26-year old self – more tears, more vulnerable open hearts, more hand-holding as Jenny and I and thousands of people melted together.

Every time you hate on somebody you are blocking your blessing.  And your family’s blessing.  Your street’s blessing.  Your city’s blessing.  The world’s blessing.   We have to release the power of love.  It’s the most powerful force in the world.”

As around the sun the earth knows she’s revolving
And the rosebuds know to bloom in early May
Just as hate knows love’s the cure
You can rest your mind assure
That I’ll be loving you always
As now can’t reveal the mystery of tomorrow
But in passing will grow older every day
Just as all is born is new
Do know what I say is true
That I’ll be loving you always

We’re on our feet, we’re singing, the entire band is on stage – two drummers, bass man Nate Watts (who has been with Stevie for decades) three guitars, two more keyboard players, six brass & woodwinds, two percussionists, six backing singers, twelve strings, 15 in the choir plus India Arie and Frédéric Yonnet, over 30 people are playing Another Star and we’re going to church in Stevie’s parlour, the joy is infectious and huge.

They don’t leave the stage after Stevie takes his bow and introduces us to every single member of his band, saying “Wow – we did it – we played it all – it’s 11.40”  we looked at our phones – he was right ! “we’re gonna play til midnight.  This is Stevie’s disco”  He had a table with button on it and we got bits of Boogie On Reggae Woman, Jungle Fever, Do I Do, I Just Called To Say I Love You, Uptight, then the whole band sang Living For The City (woo!) and Superstition (wow!) and that was it.

It was midnight and he’d been onstage (with a 20-minute interval) since 8.20.  We were lifted up into the night air and floated home, high.  It was a huge cultural moment, like watching Gustav Mahler conduct his 5th Symphony or Chopin playing the Ballades.   And yet he’d been so humble, so funny, so human. And one of the greatest singers I’ve ever witnessed in a live setting.   Knocked off my feet.

Songs In The Key Of Life.

My Pop Life #34 : Symphony in Black: A Rhapsody Of Negro Life – Duke Ellington with Billie Holiday

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Symphony in Black: A Rhapsody of Negro Life  –  Duke Ellington with Billie Holiday

…saddest tale on land or sea was when my man walked out on me…

I’ve got those lost-my-man, can’t get him back again blues….

Very early jazz purchase from me – probably 19 years old in London.  I bought another Ellington record too “1929-1930” probably because it had East St Louis Toodle-oo and seemed like an early/fundamental/influential collection – but what did I know at 19?  Very little.  I had just moved to Fitzroy St Halls of Residence under the Post Office Tower – a short walk down Charlotte St to Soho Square, the 100 Club, the Marquee in Wardour St, the record shops of Berwick St and Hanway St.   It was autumn 1976.   I mis-spent many an hour flicking through endless vinyl and selecting which of the glorious LP covers I would release my un-earned Student Grant on.  Yes, now it can be told :  I was part of the lucky generation, there’s no question about it, brought up by a single parent on social security on a council estate, I still nevertheless got to study Law at LSE for three years because I was good at passing exams essentially.  A good short-term memory.  Crucial for actors, and probably lawyers, although I never got to test that theory out.  They are not so different though as jobs of work.


The view of the Post Office Tower from Fitzroy Street

Anyway at some point, perhaps while hitch-hiking around the USA, or perhaps during those Fresher Week moments, I realised that I knew next-to-nothing about Music with a capital M.  Really.  I knew a few prog bands and a bunch of pop records from the charts, I worshipped Hendrix and John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Joe Walsh.  The rest was bluff and prejudice.  These record shops in W1 made me feel unenlightened and I longed for education.  My fellow students would help me out of course, but my duty to myself was clear and unequivocal :  Buy More Records.  Buy important records that made their mark.  Records that were Influential.  It was a little bit like doing a degree in Art History and catching up on the big paintings.   But I knew next to nothing.  Little scraps gleaned from the oh-so-current New Musical Express.  But musical history?  Where would you start?  I thought perhaps – with Jazz.   A scary big universe of famous names and complicated music.   But undeniably cool though, that much was clear.   So much to choose from, familiar and very unfamiliar names – I’m still finding cultural holes in the jazz road.   But Ellington was a large lamp-post, a shining beacon, a hostelry where one could sit awhile with a cocktail and tap one’s foot.    And Billie Holiday I knew the name – presumably – via Diana Ross and Lady Sings The Blues.

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I struck gold with the 1929-30 LP – it contained many of the amazing hits in the early 30s which are all carved into stone as masterpieces of the 78rpm record : The Mooche, Mood Indigo, Take The A-Train, Rockin’ In Rhythm.   But this other slab of vinyl – Duke Ellington’s Band Shorts (and it was heavy vinyl on the Biograph label I think) – appealed to me for a different reason : it seemed collectable because it had the three soundtracks (Black & Tan Fantasy and Bundle Of Blues are the other two) Duke had made in that period for short films, one of which had a 19-year old Billie Holiday singing in her film debut.  The film is called Symphony in Black and was directed by Fred Waller and was the first ‘commercially available’ film about black people in America. It won the Oscar for best short film the following year.  The piece of music is called A Rhapsody Of Negro Life, and honours WC Handy, George Gershwin and Ravel among others – but most notably the Harlem scene it represented.

DUKE ELLINGTON: Band Shorts (1929-1935) LP (gatefold cover ...

Duke Ellington – Band Shorts (1929 – 1935)

The film itself shows the young genius composer at the piano writing the score – and the score is at the crossroads of classical, blues, jazz and film music;  like so much of that era’s work we are terribly familiar with the shapes and sounds and tempos because they were the backing for so many cartoons and short silent films.   There are four parts : “The Laborers,” “A Triangle”, “A Hymn of Sorrow” and “Harlem Rhythm” and the whole piece lasts 9 minutes.

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Billie Holiday, (who had recorded her first sides in late 1933 with Benny Goodman a year previously) sings the blues lament and appears in the film as a spurned lover in an echo of the famous Bessie Smith short film “St Louis Blues” which was the other film soundtrack LP I bought on the same day.  They both seemed to me to be treasure, and for a while they were the only jazz records I owned.

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Billie, Duke, jazz critic Leonard Feather in 1935

This piece contains everything I love about music in 9 short minutes.  It changes tempo and key, it chatters and jitters, it swoons, it has a tear in its eye, it swells like a heaving chest about to burst, it is painterly and grand, emotional and beautiful.  I commend it to thy collections.

My Pop Life #30 : Two Lane Highway – Pure Prairie League

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Two Lane Highway   –   Pure Prairie League

…I guess this time I’m really gone

but it don’t seem right I been up all night…

After I finished my A-levels at Lewes Priory my best friend Simon Korner and I had a year off before our University chapter began.    We didn’t have money to flit about for a whole year, so I went to work in Laughton Lodge, a local asylum/psychiatric hospital until I’d saved the money for our trip to the USA.   It took about eight months and in May 1976 we flew to New York with our back-packs, list of mainly East-coast addresses and a few dollars per day.   We would hitch-hike to the West Coast.   Or something.   The first three cities – New York, Baltimore and Washington D.C. – seem in retrospect an oasis of calm middle-class comforts to acclimatise us to the drama ahead.   Everyone kept saying “wait til you head out West…”  although one guy decided to offer up “Life is a shit sandwich – you eat it or you starve.”   Even at eighteen years old I thought that was a trifle extreme.

A bright spring morning and we are dropped off south of D.C. by Julie Furth’s brother.  Arlington Virginia.  Officially ‘The South’.  It takes us all day to get as far as Charlottesville on route 60, just outside Shenandoah National Park and those rather wonderful Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.    Dusk was falling.    We had a tent but no plans to erect it at the side of the road.    We hit on a new plan – one person hide while the other thumbed it.    After 20 minutes of this a small car pulls over – packed to the gills with stuff, no room for one person, let alone two.  But Randy, the driver, rearranges his shit into further squashy piles, bungs a bag in the trunk and we squidge into a) the back seat and b) the front seat.  “So where you guys going?”  he asks.  “West” said Simon, “– that direction.”  “Well, I’m going to Chicago” offers Randy.   Basically, WOW.   That’s through Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana to Illinois.   That is a major ride.   An 800-mile lift.   What’s the catch ?

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I’m pretty sure Randy didn’t take that route above on the map but I can’t swear to it.   Within minutes of getting in he asked Simon to roll a joint, which he of course did.    This may have been, in retrospect, the reason to have a hitchhiker in the passenger seat – to keep Randy supplied with Jays.   Anyway.   We all smoked it and he told us that he had just deserted from Norfolk Navy Base on the coast of Virginia, and was driving home to Chicago.   Furthermore, he was tripping.   He’d taken an LSD tab as he’d left the Base.    By now it was dark, we were in deepest West Virginia which is a little bit hillbilly (no offence) and our options were limited to say the least.   I think we rolled another joint.   Then he put on this tape by Pure Prairie League :  “Two Lane Highway“.  We’d never heard it before but it became imprinted on my soul forever after that night.    I think we heard it eight times in a row.    Classic american country-rock with pedal steel guitars and harmony vocals – the kind of stuff we were listening to at school in the mid-70s, but we’d never even heard of them.  Ace LP.   Luckily.   Did we take it in turns to sleep in the tiny squashed back seat?  Did we eat breakfast in Kentucky?   I believe so.   Randy may well have taken the southern route through Kentucky because track 2 on the LP is called Kentucky Moonshine.    It’s sweeter than the sweetest wine don’t you know.    Did we arrive in Chicago Youth Hostel, somewhere on the south side at around 5pm the following day?   I reckon so.   We never saw Randy again – in those days strangers tended to pass like ships in the night.    I hope things worked out for him.

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