My Pop Life #177 : Don’t You Take It Too Bad – Guy Clark

Don’t You Take It Too Bad   –   Guy Clark

If you go searching for rhyme or for reason
Then you won’t have the time that it takes just for talkin’
about the places you’ve been babe ’bout the faces you’ve seen babe
and how soft the time flies past your window at night

When they read the names of those who passed in 2016, spare a thought for Guy Clark.   We mourn Bowie & Prince, Alan Rickman & Victoria Wood, Phife Dawg, Gary Shandling, Gene Wilder and Kenny Baker, Merle Haggard, Arnold Palmer and Robert Vaughn, Emerson & Lake, Leonard Cohen & Leon Russell,  Pierre Boulez and Sir George Martin, Fidel Castro & Muhammed Ali, all huge losses in what seems like the most life-shatteringly devastating era in all of our lives.  And in May a great country songwriter passed away, leaving behind a wonderful collection of songs and memories.  Guy Clark emerged from Texas in the early 1970s in that loosest band of cowboy-outlaw country singers who smoked weed and drank bourbon and wrote brilliant, finely-wrought songs : Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle,  Jerry Jeff Walker, Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell.

Guy Clark in 1971

I was passed this song in 1986 as I rehearsed a TV play in North Acton rehearsal rooms called The Black and Blue Lamp for the BBC.   It was a wicked and hilarious satire on screen coppers – from The Blue Lamp (1950) which spawned the cosy Dixon of Dock Green tv series through to The Bill and The Professionals, who beat people up onscreen.

Written by Arthur Ellis the actors in it were Karl Johnson, Sean Chapman (playing the Dirk Bogarde part), John Woodvine, Peter Lovstrom, Nick Stringer, Ian Brimble and Kenneth Cranham, who had made me a Country tape (see also My Pop Life #46 Deportee by Dolly Parton) containing this treasure and some hidden behind it.  We rehearsed in a large warehouse-like space with generous windows and the floor marked out with coloured tape to the exact dimensions of the TV studio where we would eventually film the screenplay.   I had already done a few BBC dramas and felt comfortable in there, in fact my first ever TV acting job rehearsed in that very room.  But before we rehearsed, we held a read-through, known as a table-read in the United States.  these are always slightly tense affairs, covered with bonhomie and smiles as everyone hears the word for the first time in the mouths of them that will say them.  And all departments are represented sitting around that giant table.  Make-up designers will come up afterwards wondering whether you should keep those sideburns or not.  And Wardrobe have taken a liking to your shirt and shoes, I always thought ‘because you’d chosen something that fitted and looked nice because it was the read-through !!’

North Acton BBC rehearsal rooms – mid 80s

Actor Nick Stringer was an Equity man, a Union man, to the degree that he ostentatiously opened the envelope containing his script in front of the producers and the BBC hierarchy at the read-through, just on the exact minute when he was supposed to start work, and when he would start to be paid.  The rest of us had quite naturally read it at home the night before.  Why draw attention to yourself in that aggressive way?    Anyway, the screenplay by  Arthur Ellis was funny and dark and clever, and involved the killer of PC Dixon and his arresting officer (Sean and Karl from 1950) being transported forward in time to a late 1980s TV Cop Show (Ken, John and me) to some culture shock and some pretty vicious interrogation methods, with a nice twist.  Not three years earlier I had filmed a whole series of The Bill as PC Muswell, the first openly racist copper on a British TV cop show (alongside first black copper PC Lyttleton played by Ronnie Cush) so I appreciated the joke.

Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt

The song Don’t You Take It Too Bad  is deceptively simple moving through F G and C, but not in a 12-bar blues shape.  It is a huge warm hug of a song, a plea to take your time and appreciate the passing of time and space rather than sit and wonder what is going wrong at every opportunity.  I need to hear it every now and again, for it calms me.   The introduction has already slowed you down with the lazy piano licks, slide guitar and weary harmonica leading us to that great arm around the shoulder of the first line.

Well don’t you take it too bad, if you’re feelin’ unlovin’
If you’re feelin’ unfeelin’   if you’re feelin’ alone
don’t you take it too bad cause it ain’t you to blame babe
Well it’s some kind of game made
out of all of this living that we’ve got left to do

This is immense songwriting, simple and plain, touching and strangely effortless, yet with a lived-in tone that must come from pain.  The writer, the troubled opaque genius Townes Van Zandt, also from Texas, was the hidden prize behind this song for me.   Guy Clark does a filled-out version of the song with extra instruments, Van Zandt’s original is simplicity itself, modelled on early Dylan and Hank Williams.

 The song appeared on Clark’s self-titled 3rd LP Guy Clark in 1978, and from that date on, he would include a Townes Van Zandt song on almost every album until he died earlier this year.

Townes had met Guy Clark in Houston in 1964 where Guy ran a guitar shop, drank, smoked weed and wrote songs,  and they would be close friends for the rest of their lives.   At Townes Van Zandt’s funeral in 1997 I think it is Guy Clark among the many musician mourners playing his songs as a final lament who remarks “I booked this gig 33 years ago” and the whole church chuckles at the darkness of the remark.   Anyone who met Townes knew that he wasn’t quite right.  Shall I count the ways ?  His sad noble face is marked with pain and doubt throughout the beautiful documentary Be Here and Love Me.

Townes Van Zandt and friends, 1970s

After a regular sporting teenage college life his first vice was glue.  After bouts of depression a doctor recommended insulin treatment (and perhaps electro-convulsive therapy which my mum was given in 1965) and which his parents agreed to, and later regretted.  After these treatments Townes lost most of his visual memory.  His Damascene conversion to music (as opposed to the army) was seeing Elvis perform on the Ed Sullivan show, but the army rejected him because of manic depression and ‘a poor adjustment to life’.  This was the pattern of his life.  Drink, heroin, depression, songwriting.  He spent most of the 70s and 80s living in a shack south of Nashville with no electricity or telephone.  His songs however were extraordinary.

Steve Earle famously said he was the finest songwriter alive “and he would stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table and say that”.  Dylan himself sought out Townes and they played together in his trailer but none of this made any difference to the man.  In the moving and evocative documentary of his life and work made in 2005 by Margaret Brown, all three of his ex-wives speak of him with tenderness, while the children have varying degrees of scepticism about his addictive hobo personality as a cop-out choice rather than artistic bravery, whilst apparently knowing the words to all his songs.

All of this resonates deeply for me thanks to my mum’s schizophrenia and her uncanny ability to cut to the raw truth of a situation or person – if she could play a musical instrument I think she’d have been a profound songwriter.  But then again, like the honest account of Townes Van Zandt that caused that chuckle to ripple through his funeral, it can be extremely discomforting as well.  And the idea of living a pure heroic life dedicated to your art is naturally selfish and few attempt it without collateral emotional damage to their nearest and dearest.  I get it and maybe that is why the songs move me so much, both when Townes sings them, or when others cover them as Guy Clark and many others have done.  Perhaps his best-known song is Pancho & Lefty which was a hit in 1983 for Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard (who also passed on this year).   The sudden rush of income from this made no difference to Townes who performs a memorable acoustic version of it himself  in the 1975 outlaw documentary Heartworn Highways.  

Fifteen months before his death Townes Van Zandt played a benefit concert in the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville for the Interfaith Dental Clinic organised by Guy Clark’s wife Susanna.  They had fixed his tooth after he lost his gold tooth gambling in the backwoods.  It’s a long, funny story, and Townes tells the story between songs on the resulting concert album.  Together at the Bluebird Cafe, was finally released in 2001, four years after his death.  It features Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle and Guy Clark, each playing a separate set but their lives and music are forever intertwined.  It is, like all of their music, a true find.

The end of the song has the elegiac 3rd verse as follows :

And we just can’t have that girl cause it’s a sad lonesome cold world
And a man needs a woman just to stand by his side
And whisper sweet words in his ears about daydreams
And roses and playthings
And the sweetness of springtime and the sound of the rain

Guy Clark sounds tired but comforted, and appropriately he has both a male and a female harmony alongside him to sweeten things with a sad harmonica, a fiddle and that bluesy piano.  Three verses, three instrumental breaks, no chorus.  I can’t think of another song with an arrangement like that, simple but original, like an old-time folk song about getting through life.   Gentle.  Considerate.  Empathetic.  A comfort every time I hear it.

My Pop Life #162 : The Way You Look Tonight – Teddy Wilson & Billie Holiday

The Way You Look Tonight   –   Teddy Wilson & Billie Holiday

Someday, when I’m awfully low, when the world is cold

I will feel a glow just thinking of you

and the way you look tonight

While I was studying law in London in the late 1970s I was also improving my musical education.   The record shops of Soho in particular were a ten-minute walk from Fitzroy Street where I lived, and bulged with unknown treasure that I saved up for, dipped into and splurged on.  Like a child in a sweet shop I wanted to sample everything.  I felt ignorant about music, like I had huge holes in my knowledge – particularly classical, anything not in English or jazz.

One of the first ever jazz records I bought was a white double LP from Columbia Records called Masters of Jazz  –  Billie Holiday Volume 1 : 1933 – 1936.   It felt like an LP that may have some answers.  I also bought a Duke Ellington LP in a similar package – one of a series.  I imagined, no doubt that the other volumes would follow.   I thought jazz might be ‘a bit difficult’ – but that couldn’t have been further from the truth and I couldn’t stop playing both records.   Totally by luck I had hit bullseye first shot – the Billie Holiday / Teddy Wilson songs are both eternal and perfect, simple and complex, they reveal more and more layers of joy with each listen – and still do some 40 years later.   Over the years of loving these songs – now collected on another “complete” Columbia series which are for me the pinnacle of 20th century pop – I’ve come to really adore the piano playing of Teddy Wilson.

Billie Holiday was 18 when she recorded her first sides, with Benny Goodman – the 2 songs from 1933 are the first on this LP.  Then she did a recording with Duke Ellington in 1935 called Symphony In Black which I wrote about in My Pop Life #34.  I don’t know what she did from 18-20, aside from live dates, I guess the pop vocal world was pretty competitive back then and Billie was already seen particularly by producer and early champion  John Hammond as a jazz stylist rather than a pop singer.  Nevertheless in 1935 she cut her first sides with swing maestro Teddy Wilson for the Brunswick label and had a hit with What A Little Moonlight Can Do.   The resulting five years produced the incredible music which I stumbled onto in Soho back when I was a callow youth.  Extraordinary music.  Each song a glittering diamond of the art.

Ben Webster, Billie Holiday, Allen Reuss, Lester Young, Teddy Wilson kneeling NYC 1936

Jazz standards they’re called now, some of them have become part of The Great American Songbook, others are pop songs of the day played by an ace swing band under the twinkle of Teddy Wilson.  The players were legendary themselves : Lester Young on the tenor sax, whom Billie Holiday called Prez.  He in turn anointed her Lady Day. On this song – Ben Webster on the tenor, another top player. The mighty Gene Krupa on drums from the Benny Goodman Trio, where Teddy Wilson had been one of the first black players in a prominent integrated band back in the early 1930s.

All of the numbers follow the same architectural pattern, which nowadays would be considered musical suicide.  The vocal doesn’t come in for at least 2 minutes usually.  (Hmm perhaps resembling House Music from the 1980s).   First, a shuffle is established and the melody is played by clarinet, tenor saxophone, trumpet or piano.  A full verse is played, followed by an improvised verse, followed by more of the same.  All the lead instruments get a turn, then finally, around halfway through the song, Billie sings.  The result is simply breathtaking.  You hear the greatest players of the day riffing over the sweetest songs, reigned in by the rhythm section and the melody and producing some of the most sublime music known to man – then Billie Holiday takes it home.  Always behind the beat, sometimes thrillingly in-between the beats, singing a song of her own inside the song.  She is another jazz instrumentalist, using her voice and the words as her tune.  Very few singers can pull this off – this level of structural awareness, to stretch the song beyond it’s confines to another level of syncopation and genius.

Many listeners like the God Bless The Child side of Billie, the later material on Verve from the 40s when she probably had a cigarette dangling from her mouth and was singing weary blues and jazz with great heart-wrenching and pitiful emotion and of course – it’s better than great.  She wrote the extraordinary Strange Fruit in 1939, her initial unwillingness to sing it apparently coming from memories of her father’s death.  Her talent was huge, her life was tragic.  She poured it all into the music until she simply couldn’t be bothered, wrecked  with heroin, drink and everything else and died in destitution from liver failure in July 1959.

I prefer these early sides from the late thirties to the bluesy broken Billie.   Musical people at the height of their game, playing exquisite pop music on disc.  Carefree beautiful music, written by Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Oscar Hammerstein, Johnny Mercer, Jerome Kern, Sammy Cahn.

But check out the piano of Teddy Wilson.  Syncopation and a loose tightness, rolling phrases, moments of strange determination and bloody-mindedness, lyrical beauty.  It reminds me of Artur Rubinstein playing Chopin (see My Pop Life #9) and there can be no higher praise from me.  I’d love to hear Teddy Wilson playing Chopin.  Purists may scoff (oh go on, please) but examples abound of the jazz/classical crossover, from Aretha Franklin singing Nessun Dorma when Pavarotti fell ill in 1988, and Benny Goodman playing the Mozart Clarinet Concerto in 1949.  Different disciplines, sure, but same instrument.  Anyway, Teddy does it for me as a pianist.  Something very quality going on.  He became known as the ‘Marxist Mozart’ in New York thanks to his leftist sympathies, people don’t like to distinguish between shades of red do they, if you’re vaguely left you’re a commie.  For example Teddy chaired the Artist’s Committe to Elect Benjamin J. Davis, black Communist leader who was elected to the NY City Council in 1943.

This song was written by Jerome Kern with lyrics by Dorothy Fields, originally sung by Fred Astaire in the film Swing Time, and winning the Oscar for best original song in 1936.  It’s a corker of a tune.  Similar in theme to Don’t Ever Change from the 1960s.  A wonky piano backflip takes us into the clarinet melody over a brisk shuffle, played straight just once, followed by eight bars of improvisation before the trumpet takes us through the second verse and we slide gloriously back to the piano genius of Wilson before Billie finally, reluctantly, joins them, singing her song inside theirs.   All these sides from these sessions – mainly cut in New York, but also recorded in Chicago and Los Angeles – are for me the very stuff of joy itself.

These days it is possible to listen to Billie Holiday in rehearsal, phrasing, trying stuff out, ordering drinks, flexing her vocal instrument, arguing.  Too much information?  For some people yes.  They prefer to receive the art in finished condition, these overheard bootlegs of conversations feel intrusive, reductive.  Others, including me, want everything.  When I started collecting Beatles bootlegs, I relished every overheard word, every joke and quip, every false start and breakdown.  It was like gold dust.

Billie Holiday : A female jazz artist in a male world : 1939

This song was recorded on October 21st 1936.  Astaire had already recorded it, and many others would follow – Parker, Sinatra, Art Blakey, Ferry, Coltrane, Bing Crosby, Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee….

No particular memory, just a lifetime’s pleasure.

My Pop Life #153 : Small Hours – John Martyn

Small Hours   –   John Martyn

I met Colin Jones at the London School of Economics in 1976 and remained friends with him until he died in 1997 in a possibly deliberate car crash on the M6 when he drove into the back on a lorry parked on the hard shoulder somewhere in Cumbria.  We were shocked and saddened, but the happy-go-lucky LSE student, music lover, dope dealer, driving instructor and friend had turned into (revealed himself as?) a secretly deeply depressed man who struggled increasingly with his own private torments.  In the late 1980s his flat-mate Dave Moser had found him lying in his bed with slit wrists and a huge pool of blood around him on the floor, but Dave had called the ambulance and Colin had lived.  A cry for help no doubt.  Or was it ?

The London School Of Economics, Houghton St WC2

LSE 1976-79 was full of unreformed hippies, beatniks, groovers and fresh new student punks.  My gang was loosely grouped around the ENTS Room which organised live concerts and suchlike and was where you were guaranteed to score some dope or at least bum a puff of weed, a cloud of which hung like a signpost outside the door of the scruffy 2nd-floor office.  The other room which was nearby the ENTS Room was the Student Newspaper office – called Beaver, less druggy but still hippy-drenched and groovy.  I spent my spare time (which at university was plentiful) between these two rooms, and two other key groups – the LSE football team and the Drama group.  What a blessed time.  I was studying for a law degree, which I achieved with a lazy 2:2 in the summer of ’79, never intending to use it.  I would have been a good lawyer.  My mind works like a lawyer’s.  But I’d caught the acting bug by then, and regardless of shadow careers and what-ifs, it has been a true privilege to earn a living in this precarious and exciting profession.

The ENTS gang then :  Andy Cornwell, from Lewes Priory like me, the ultimate cool groover with a blond afro, pear-drop glasses and mushroom loon pants.  Permanently stoned, earnest and absurdly relaxed, he booked the bands that we all grew to champion : Aswad, Roy Harper, Vivian Stanshall and others.  He would later run the Legalize Cannabis Campaign, and perhaps still does.  Mike Stubbs, the previous Ents Chief, long wavy orange hair and pop-blue eyes, who stayed reasonably above the fray (he was a little older) but whom I lived with in my 3rd year (see My Pop Life 150).  He became a lawyer.  Pete Thomas, twinkly-eyed Everton fan from Hertfordshire, reggae disciple and expert joint-roller had a keen eye for business and had retired by the time he was 40.  His girlfriend and wife Sali Beresford, one of the only women in the crew, bright as a button, funny as fuck and fierce as a firecracker.  I lived with them and Nick Partridge from  ’78-’80 (see My Pop Life #59).  Their friends :  Colin Jones, Tony Roose, John Vincent.  Colin had frizzy ginger hair and a beard which looked glued on, round John Lennon glasses and a nervous but generous smile. He actually resembled Fat Freddy from the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers in an admittedly blurry kind of way.

Fat Freddy and his cat

On closer inspection and the clear cold light of day of course, he didn’t look anything like him, but there you go.   He was warm, vulnerable and funny and he supplied the dope incessantly.  For decades.   Tony and John were a team within the team and they supported the eternal wearing of denim, throwing of frisbee, smoking of weed, drinking of beer.  John was very quiet and shy.  I went to Belfast with Tony on a Troops Out Delegation in 1981 (see My Pop Life #13), and we’re still in touch.  Back then we used to go to Regent’s Park, our nearest green space to Fitzroy Street, and play frisbee golf, a game which we invented.  (not strictly true, but we did : see Wikipedia ).   It involved declaring and indicating the next hole (That tree over there!) then throwing your own frisbee at it in turn until you hit it.  While stoned.  Subsequently I introduced this game to Brighton in the late 1990s, playing with the village gang Andy Baybutt, James Lance, Tim Lewis, Lee Charles Williams and Thomas Jules on a regular basis in the parks and green spaces of Brighton and Hove.  I recommend it to you all as a splendid pastime.

The rest of the LSE possee then  :  Anton who edited the Beaver, long hair down to his waist and a permanently amused lisp.  His team-mate and flat mate Nigel, the only other person other than me who dug Peter Hammill, lead singer of Van Der Graaf Generator who’d made a string of alarming and alarmingly good solo LPs.  Wavy hair down below his waist, Nigel turned me on to Todd Rundgren, for which eternal thanks.  Lewis MacLeod who was studying Law with me, speaking almost incomprehensible Glaswegian who liked a drink and a smoke and invented the Beatles A-Level with me one stoned afternoon (sample question :  “She was just seventeen, you know what I mean. Discuss.”)  He is now a Dave Moser, prematurely balding and brightly benign, shared a flat with Colin then moved to Australia in the mid-1980s.

I was with Mumtaz through all those years, and she would often be there with us, and was indeed one of us, still is, but often she would have to duck out of the incessant revelries because she was studying to be an actual lawyer rather than just playing at it.  And she didn’t enjoy frisbee.  She also became a lawyer.  The standard as I recall it through the haze, was high.  John Vincent was the don, his unerring accuracy gave us all something to aim for and raised our game.

Later Nick Partridge would join this crowd, after LSE finished  and lived in West Hampstead with us, he went on to run the Terrence Higgins Trust from 1991 until 2013 when he resigned, having become Sir Nick Partridge in 2009 to everyone’s joy and amusement.  In those balmy heady years after university the whole gang stayed effortlessly in touch and we still sought each other’s company, played frisbee golf and went to concerts together.  And of course got stoned together listening to Burning Spear (see My Pop Life #10), Spirit, Van Morrison and John Martyn.

Hard to choose a song for Colin, his favourite artist was Bob Dylan, favourite song Tangled Up In Blue.  But that doesn’t remind me of him.  Small Hours by John Martyn does.  A wonderful musician whom we all saw regularly in London at UCH, Bloomsbury and other venues, and he’d come up with a fantastic new LP in 1977 called One World.  It was on the record player a lot.  An early experimentalist with technology, Martyn at that point performed solo (or with just a bass player) utilising a repeat box of pedals which set up a groove for him to solo and sing over, a hugely effective trick which kept us all rapt.  A very original sound at that time.  We all loved the futuristic blues/folk/jazz of John Martyn, as did DJ John Peel.  Martyn’s early albums with Beverley Martyn his wife were subtle and beautiful, but once they’d divided their talents he changed his vocal style to a more slurred jazzy feel and hooked up with bass player Danny Thompson.   He then started a run of amazing LPs starting with Bless The Weather, followed by total masterpiece Solid Air (1973), dedicated to his friend Nick Drake (who died of an overdose of anti-depressants a year later).

Then followed  Inside Out,  Sunday’s Child and One World. Lee Perry, famous Jamaican producer was involved with some of the recording.  The track Small Hours was recorded outside at Woolwich Green Farm deep in the English countryside one night.  Engineer Phil Brown discusses the unique set-up around a lake in his book “Are We Still Rolling?“.  You can hear water, and the sound of geese on the track, haunting and wonderful.   Records (or albums, LPs indeed), were to be listened to in those days, and they also supplied us with mini-trays to roll joints on.  The selection of the album to roll on became a part of the ritual.  Joints were to be passed around, a social event.  And then when the brain was stoned, it listened to the music and fell in love with it.

After college we all helped Pete & Sali and Colin’s girlfriend Mary move a reasonably large upright piano into the infamous Huntley Street Squat, just round the corner from Heals Department Store off Tottenham Court Road.  Top floor, of course.  Up seven flights of stairs.  Most of the above-mentioned chaps were there.  It was quite simply one of the worst evenings of my life, and in the joke about visions of hell (tea-break over, back on yer heads) I would substitute an endless spiral staircase with an infinite line of pianos which had to ascend it as a particular torture which I never wished to revisit, even in hell.  A few years later we moved that same piano into a flat in Mornington Crescent, then years later when I got the Housing Association flat in Archway Road, Mary gave it to me, bless her.  About 20 years later I gave it in turn to our friend masseur Anna Barlow because her disabled son had asked her for a piano, and I then bought Andy Baybutt’s gentler-toned upright.  The Frisbee piano circle continues.

Colin became a Driving Instructor (as did Mike Stubbs) and although I’d learned to drive in Woods Hole Massachusetts in the summer of 1976 in a Beetle, now I had to pass the test, which thanks to Colin I did first time, despite hitting the kerb on my reverse corner.   Colin also continued to provide most of the dope that we all smoked in copious amounts, either as a first choice drug, or increasingly to cushion the come-down of speed which had entered our lives thanks to punk and the increased tempo of the music we listened to and watched live.  At some point after I moved into the Finsbury Park attic room with Mumtaz (1980) Colin met Wanda and they were married.  Later he transferred his talents to driving transport for the disabled for Camden Council, eventually as team leader.  He carried on dealing throughout.  But he never seemed to settle.  Neither did I by the way.  The flat with Dave Moser was a headquarters once again for all of us to gather and smoke and chew the cud, listen to music and solve the world’s problems.  Until the dark night when he slashed his own wrists.  We held a men’s group in the early 80s as a supportive response to the feminist movement, Colin was in that, as was Tony, and my mate Simon Korner.   But despite the suicide attempt Colin always seemed to me to be a together person, a proper grown-up.  I felt like a young soul next to him, he was wise and funny and sad, compassionate and thoughtful.  When we heard that he’d died in an accident on the M6 and the details filtered through, many felt that it was no accident, that this time he’d managed to kill himself.  We gathered for his funeral and wake near King’s Cross, drank and smoked, shocked and stunned, sad looking at each other for support and understanding.

I still miss him.  In researching this piece I spoke with Pete, who confided to me that Colin had been sexually abused by his father as a child.  I can only guess at the torment inside him, never shared with me.  Given that burden I feel that his life was a kind of miracle.  He was a terribly kind and gentle man.   Were we all damaged, trying quietly and privately to heal together in the wee small hours, music washing over us ?

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.

 

My Pop Life #119 : The Pest – John Cooper Clarke

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The Pest   –   John Cooper Clarke

the pest pulled up, propped his pushbike at a pillar box, pulled his ‘peen, paused at a post and pissed.

‘piss in the proper place’ pronounced a perturbed pedestrian, and presently, this particular part of the planet was plunged into a panorama of public pressure and pleasure through pain.

*

Convivia

Dinner with Godber, lunch with Bob Pugh

Feed me a diet of Good Men and True

Late in the evening, drinking my wedge

Slurping the Guinness smoking Benson & Hedge

Spotting a hero, meeting a Ledge

*

John Godber I’ve known since 1978 and the Edinburgh Festival 2nd attempt

18-stone Yorkshireman beef on his plate, and pen in his hand, hair slightly unkempt

Fast forward nigh on 40 years or so we’re now both nearly 60 with buzzcuts and show

Sharing stories of Corbyn & Allam & dough, over breakfast at Hope Street with daughter in tow

In the corner hunched over his mushrooms on toast a poet of England (I don’t like to boast)

Dr John Cooper Clarke and his man Johnny Green, I decide not to bother them, exit the scene.

So to work, up in Crosby where down on the shore, there’s Anthony Gormley‘s ghost figures & more

looking out to the line where the sea meets the sky a salute to infinity stretching my eye

meanwhile back in my rabbit hutch, one third of space,  I climb into costume, rearrange my face

suddenly I become – from ungrateful fat wretch : an old school left winger (not much of a stretch)

Transformed I eat lunch with the writer Bob Pugh (co-writer with Jimmy McGovern it’s true)

He is one of the family since 2005 when Thomas met Scarlett and the love became live

Fast forward nine years and Skye has been born, a blessing on all of us now a new dawn

A new day a new life a young baby so precious to Bob and to me – both grandparents bless us

So onto the set and the hustle the story, representing the soldiers who died in Iraq

Tim Roth plays Reg Keys in his humble true glory standing up to the Blair the scumbag the Tory

The election in 2005 is the story and the names of the fellas who never came back.

The day is a good one we all say goodnight and I’m taken to Hope Street and to my delight

The old Philharmonic is hosting a crowd of interesting types in the gathering shade

I walk past the stalkers & ask who is playing it’s John Cooper Clarke and it’s Squeeze – I’m up-made

I snaffle a ticket returned by a punter and walk straight inside to Clarkey’s Manc chunter

Delight is immediate, happy Ralph Brown and he closes with Evidently Chickentown

I jump back to Hope St and up in my room a puff on the pipe in the darkening gloom

Downstairs in the hotel the great intersection

Cillian Murphy arrives yet another connection

(we made Red Light Runners or rather – we didn’t;  the plug was pulled on it

– so fuck it – good riddance)

and Cillian knew Tim from way back when so a quick Guinness later I’m back in the pen

Glen Tillbrook, Chris Difford the magic of Squeeze, the hits and the new songs are written to please

an old pop tart like me who cannot resist the rise of a third the fall of a fifth

(and it goes like this the fourth the fifth the minor fall and the major lift)

and Tillbrook is drenched in classic vignette : sweet chords that you hum, lyrics never forget

by the way he can’t half play the bloody guitar he’s a musical genius bona fide star

I’m so happy to see them, I’d missed them before with Jools on the Piano three quid on the door:

Is That Love ’81 to Annie Get Your Gun, then Labelled With Love stands the hairs on their feet

And Tempted we stand clap along to the beat

A lump in my throat as my heart starts to function & there’s Clapham Common 

& there’s Up the Junction

Then quickly in line shake the hands of the band & it’s thanks very much there’s nothing to sign

Back in the hotel glowing and shiny there’s John Cooper Clarke again smoky and winey

I walk over say hi sit down and we chat have a fag and a laugh so how about that?

A day sent from heaven not burdened with trivia

A day of good people fine wines and convivia

A poem that contains a few words I made up

And if you don’t like reading it, make your own up

Written out in the spirit of John Cooper Clarke

A wordsmith, gentleman, doctor and lark

This morning at breakfast I met Johnny Green

His gentleman traveller, know what I mean ?

He managed The Clash and made the odd million

We reminisced about Hastings Pier Pavilion,

He then worked in Texas with Townes Van Zandt

Guy Clark, Willie Nelson – we had a good rant

and now I am back up ensconced in my room

Feeling lucky and happy and thankful to whom

I’ll just say in conclusion, that this song “The Pest

Was played to me last week by Elliott Ness

Or Elliott Tittsenor as he’s actually known

A fine young actor whose cover now blown,

Can roll me a spliff whenever he pleases

(I hope when he reads this he knows who Squeeze is)

The coincidental tight circles we move in

the shrinking world the connection degrees

Talk to young people as you age to keep grooving

And life will still feel like bloody good wheeze

So I’ve written some doggerel scribbled some shite, the kids’ll be happy the kids are all right

Dinner with Godber, lunch with Bob Pugh

Feed me a diet of Good Men and True

then late in the evening, drinking my wedge

Slurping the Guinness smoking Benson & Hedge

Spotting a hero, meeting a Ledge

Dr John Cooper Clarke – and thank you to REG

*

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Bob Pugh, standing and director David Blair, no relation

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Anthony Gormley figures, Crosby Beach, 5th Sept 2015

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Bob Clay (me) and Richard Keys (Elliott Tittsenor) working on REG

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convivia with John Cooper Clarke outside the Hope St Hotel

My Pop Life #69 : Love Me Always – Dennis Brown AND Angolian Chant – Joe Gibbs

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Love Me Always   –   Dennis Brown

Angolian Chant   –   Joe Gibbs

I wanna dub you, dub you always….

there ain’t nobody else….

Time for a version excursion on my pop life.    Two songs for number 69 –  they are the same song, but they’re not, really.    Lovers rock becomes dub plate tune.   I cycled up to Williamsburg today on a citibike, nice Sunday afternoon, looking for graffitti spots in Bushwick, enjoying the weather.  Called in at an address on N10th St and rang a random bell, and Annie McGann opened the door.   Hooray!  Inside, her son Joseph McGann, Sam Barrett, Chris Ebdon and Imogene Tavares.   Introductions all round, and food is being prepared.  Reggae and dub is playing.   I’d met Joe before, when he was very young (in Los Angeles Annie reminded me!) and then throughout the years, most recently with his dad Paul at a Withnail & I event in Bristol.   I introduced myself to the cat that Annie is catsitting and – suddenly – one of those proustian moments rushed in as this song came on.   I left Annie and the cat Schmo and ran to the ipad.   There was this picture.   Treasure from beyond.

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I’ve been looking for this song for years.  Using the wrong search terms “I wanna dub you” and so on.  The song is called Love Me Always by the great Dennis Brown, and the dub version, which has been stuck in my ear for over 30 years is called  Angolian Chant.  Now that’s not even a word as far as I know!    So, so sweet to hear it again.  What did it remind me of ?  Well : Club 61 for starters – Paulette‘s legendary parties in Clapham (see My Pop Life #60).  And certainly also West End Lane, Pete, Sali, Nick, Colin, Tony (see My Pop Life #59).  This kind of music was for a) slowdancing – at Club 61…  and b) getting stoned to – in West End Lane.   Dub is perfect for smoking marijuana.  And vice versa of course.  And both are great for slowdancin’.   Just how the world is meant to be sometimes.

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The music comes out of Joe Gibbs & Errol Thompson‘s stable in Kingston Jamaica where they were known as “The Mighty Two”. The house band were called The Professionals and had Sly Dunbar on drums, Robbie Shakespeare on bass (also known as Fatman Riddim Section and later to become international hit machine Sly & Robbie & Earl “Chinna” Smith on guitar as the rhythm section par excellence.  This team produced over 100 number one hit records, for Dennis Brown, Black Uhuru, Culture, Mighty Diamonds, Althia & Donna, Prince Far-I, Junior Byles, Jacob Miller, Big Youth, Dillinger, John Holt, on and on.                                                                                 Joe Gibbs

And yet beyond all the hit records, Joe and Errol also produced a stream of incredible dub plates many of which are gathered together on the seminal LPs African Dub All-Mighty.  Angolian Chant is from Chapter 3.

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I used to have this on vinyl – and it is one of the LPs that I failed to replace when I lost my whole collection in 1985.  Just a missing piece of my brain.   The thing is – if you’re listening to dub, you’re quite likely to be stoned.  Things get lost in the haze.  But seriously, dub reggae is a huge part of the musical universe, and technologically way ahead of its time.  Lee Perry, King Tubby, Augustus Pablo, Prince Far-I, Errol Thompson, Mad Professor – and all of those other guys – they might have been stoned when they produced this music, but they were on the money, sharp, and knew exactly what they were doing.  The dub plates of 12″ reggae singles go much further than just being an instrumental, a track which can be used, versioned, recycled.  A different melody is put on top, a new singer, a new band, another hit!   As reggae had been doing since the 1960s.   The dub plate went way beyond that into a version which sampled itself and using faders and echoes like musical instruments themselves, created a new song from bits of the old one.   This of course has totally influenced every genre of popular music since then – rock, pop, hip hop, house, as well as grime, Drum&Bass, dubstep, ambient and electronica more generally.

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Dennis Thompson, Errol Thompson, Clive Chin & Augustus Pablo

Errol Thompson engineered at Studio One, and is credited with producing the first instrumental reggae LP in 1970,  before becoming one of dub’s pioneers.   Joe Gibbs learned his trade with Lee Perry, producing the Heptones and others before branching out on his own in the early 1970s.  His first international hit was Nicky Thomas’ “Love Of The Common People“.  Errol and Joe Gibbs joined forces in 1975.

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Dennis Brown

Dennis Brown was born like me in 1957 and started singing aged nine.  He was Bob Marley’s favourite singer – he dubbed him “The Crown Prince of Reggae”.   Dennis cut his first single aged 12 for Coxsone Dodd at Studio One.  He recorded over 75 albums, and had many hit singles of which the most famous internationally is “Money In My Pocket” produced by his close friend Winston “Niney” Holness on behalf of Joe Gibbs.  He recorded with all of the great Jamaican producers in his long career, one notable track with Lee Perry is called “Wolf and Leopard” and is also worth seeking out.  In 1977 he made the LP Visions Of Dennis Brown with Joe Gibbs which was a huge success and contains the vocal track Love Me Always.

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Joe Gibbs HQ

What is great about all this is that I only ever remembered the dub version “I wanna dub you” – try googling that !   Serendipity is a great thing.  So thanks to Annie for inviting me over and to Joe and his gang. (Joe goes out as a grime DJ under the moniker Kahn, his partner is Neek, he also works as Gorgon Sound).  Thanks for playing that damn tune !  Or was it actually Annie ??   Probably.    Annie likes a lot of the same era reggae as me.   I’ve known Annie since 1985 when I shot Withnail & I with Paul McGann, Richard E. Grant and Richard Griffiths, all being conducted under the passionate inspiration of Bruce Robinson, who also wrote it.  Wow, we were all kids really.  I’ll write about that another time, but Paul and Annie have stayed in my life ever since, as have Richard E. and Bruce.  Sadly Richard Griffiths passed away a couple of years ago.  I drove up to Stratford for his funeral.  Life passes so quickly.   Dennis Brown died in 1999.  The Prime Minister of Jamaica, and previous PM Edward Seaga both attended his funeral.  He was an inspiration to a whole generation of Jamaican singers.  This is my favourite song of his, returned to me like the prodigal son.  I have just listened to it eight times in a row.

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Dennis Brown – the Crown Prince Of Reggae