My Pop Life #174 : Learning To Be – Eleven

Learning To Be   –   Eleven

***

Slipping away I get closer each day I been looking for love to find me

Digging away I will search I will pray I been waiting for truth to blind me

Only perceive and the world will conceive there’s a seat in my heart that binds me  

awake in a dream I believe it’s extreme, ruling out that all this is magic…

“If you can meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two imposters both the same…”  said Rudyard Kipling in his incomparable poem “If…”.   Well I can’t.  I pretend I can, but no, I prefer the triumphs.  Is that what they’re called ?  Those goals into the top corner.  Those victories.  Yes, I prefer those imposters to the failures.  But people always say wise self-help guru stuff like “you learn more from your failures”  or “crisis and opportunity is the same word in Chinese”  or even “I get knocked down but I get up again”.  You know?   I prefer not to get knocked down at all.   I feel like my life was built on crises.  But still they come.

David Fincher

In 1994 I was living in Los Angeles.  It was David Fincher‘s idea.  He’d directed Alien 3 in 1991 and suggested that Jenny and I move to California.  “Come to LaLa” is actually what he said.  In 1992, after we’d got married and shot Undercover Blues in New Orleans which coincided with our honeymoon, (see My Pop Life #158) we rented an apartment in West Hollywood and stayed for three years.  David was very disappointed with Alien3 because the studio hadn’t accepted his cut, indeed had hacked the shit out of his cut, and after the glamorous premiere in LA and razzamatazz opening weekend fizz had died down, it was a film which didn’t knock everyone out, neither the public it seemed nor the critics.  David took it very badly – personally and professionally.  He spent the following two years silently fuming and plotting his revenge, and his next move.  We spent a lot of time together, round his apartment which at the time was on Beverley & La Brea with his new wife Donya Fiorentino, and Rachel his PA, her boyfriend Paul Carafotes, and David’s friends Chip & Carol, Ron, James, Marcie, and other friends.  We had a handful of friends already there – Anita Lewton from Moving Parts days (early 80s) was in Venice Beach, Suzy Crowley and Tony Armatrading were hanging out too.

Donya Fiorentino

We ate out a lot – on Sunset Strip, on La Brea, at Pane e Vino on Beverley.  We went to the movies together.  We got drunk.  We visited Lake Arrowhead one weekend and played pool and ate mushrooms.   We drove to Malibu.  Venice.  Went to gigs, clubs, parties.  We hung out in other words.

I got a gig on the film Wayne’s World 2 playing a roadie named Del Preston, and it was rushed out only a few months after it was finished (unusually).  David and Donya were round at our place on King’s Road when the LA Times review came out – it was great for me, and David said something along the lines of “I hope you remember me when you collect your Oscar“.  He wasn’t joking, he was feeling the pain of not working for two years.  Oh the irony !   Then one day some months later we were round his apartment off Beverley and he gave me a script, saying “there’s a great part in this for you Ralphie“.   It was a film called Seven.

Awake In A Dream by Eleven

There was an album that we listened to a lot that year called Awake In A Dream, by a group called Eleven, who were from LA.    A three-piece band writing intelligent glossy pop/rock with great melodies and unusual chord changes.  Their genesis was entwined with another LA band, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, and then later after Eleven split, Natasha Shneider played bass with Queens Of The Stone Age in their early days before sadly dying of cancer in 2008.  The other two band members were Alain Johannes (who also joined QOTSA in 2005) and Jack Irons.   Their first LP from which this song comes was released in 1991.   Two songs stood out – Learning To Be and Rainbow’s End… 

…Here at the rainbow’s end, there is no pot of gold, no matter what you’re told…

which was clearly a song about LA itself.   It was a sign.  An omen.

Me, Anita Lewton, Jen, Gary Kemp, Donya, David, Annie & Paul McGann

I’d always had a dream of Hollywood, and I’d never chased it, for fear I would fall flat on my face.  I’d been turned away from LA in 1989 on a trip across the USA in Auto Driveaway cars (see My Pop Life #147) getting as far as Phoenix on Christmas Eve before turning back to El Paso.  I’d always wanted Hollywood to ask me in, even in a small way, and in 1991 they did.   I had to shoot some extra Alien3 scenes and Fox paid for Pete Postlethwaite and I to travel to Culver City in LA (for another story).  I’d got an agent, got a job, got an apartment, and now a few years later I’d got the massive opportunity that eventually comes around.

 1994 was a watershed year for me, looking back.  After that incredible review in the LA Times I did not work for a whole year.  “Kim Basinger is fantastic and Christopher Walken marvellous, but walking away with the whole picture is Ralph Brown as Del Preston” is what it said.  It was the kiss of death of course.   I was going up for three films per week.  Everything that was made in 1994, I auditioned for.  Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead.  The Usual Suspects.  Crimson Tide.  Devil In A Blue Dress.  Heat.  Jumanji.   True Romance.  The Quick & The Dead.  And many many others lost to the mists of time.  Learning lines, forming character, turning up with well-chosen clothing and delivering the scene, over and over and over.  Fincher helping me with auditions sometimes (True Romance – offered to Christopher Walken).   Meeting after meeting.  No.  No.  No.  No.  No.  No.  No.  No.  No.  And No.   I’d hit the glass ceiling.  Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken were getting the gigs.  My gigs.  How could I break through that invisible barrier ?

In June the World Cup gave us some welcome respite.  We got tickets for all the Rose Bowl games in Pasadena, just by sending off for them – an advert in the LA Times, and a country that wasn’t interested, bar the foreigners, the Latinos, Africans and Europeans.  We decided to support Cameroon in an early game v Sweden and met Ashley Joyce (English) and Jeremy Thomas (Welsh, just separated from Drew Barrymore after two months of marriage) who ran The Room a groovy bar just off Hollywood Boulevard.  They are still friends of mine.

The Rose Bowl, Pasadena, 1994 World Cup Final 

The month that followed was glorious – wall to wall football, no England to disappoint us (we didn’t qualify) – over 100 degree heat for a Colombia v USA game, a July 4th game USA v Brazil in San José, a quarter final in Pasadena Romania v Sweden, a semi-final Brazil v Sweden and tickets to the actual final Brazil v Italy, a 0-0 draw, and Roberto Baggio blasting his penalty over the bar, cue Brazilian Carnivale, and meeting my old friend Stephen Woolley from Scala Cinema days and The Crying Game outside the stadium after the Final – in town doing screenings for test audiences of Interview With A Vampire.  “That’s no way to make a film” I said.  “Asking the audience which characters they prefer”  “When you’re spending 40 million dollars, it’s the only way to make a film”  he replied.  I was so green, really, so innocent.  But I was certainly living life.   Learning To Be.

Roberto Baggio has just missed a penalty at the World Cup Final

The best game was Romania 3 Argentina 2 after Maradona had been sent home for drug abuse and Hagi’s sweet left foot sent the East Europeans through to the quarter finals.   I think Germany were beaten by Bulgaria, who in turn lost to Italy.  Klinsmann was playing, Roger Milla, Alexi Lalas, Stoichkov, Romario.  We particularly enjoyed watching games on TV with absurd, nay, surreal commentary from US commentators deciphering a game they scarcely understood:  “The ball has crossed the end line” or “great touch by the goal-handler“.  Or the Latin American channels with the hyperbole of the gods :

GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAALLLLL!!!!

We had a laugh.    Then as summer turned to late summer and even later summer (you don’t really get winter in Los Angeles) – our thoughts turned to work and I carried on getting NO from meetings.  They’ve gone another way.  They loved you but it’s not going to work out this time.  Or even worse : silence.  The dwindling hope that finally extinguishes.  And then David gave me the script for Seven.   I read it – and as I’m sure you know dear reader, it was dark and clever.  My character was called John Doe.   David assured me that he wanted me to play it.   It was my gig.  This was great news.   I hadn’t worked for almost a year and was a) going slightly mental, and b) running out of money.   David then called one afternoon and said the producer would like to meet me on Thursday.  Would I mind reading?  “Course not”  I said, “no problem”.   I prepared the scenes in my own accent and also in an American accent.  I’d had an accent coach since one of the films I’d gone up for (The Ice Cream Story) had insisted on me reading again and again ( I went in 3 times and still didn’t get it).  My accent coach told me that my accent was perfect – nailed on.  But the director was nervous, and was projecting his nerves onto me.   I rationalised bitterly.

Wilshire and Fairfax in LA

So Thursday rolls around and I sit in that old space-age diner Johnie’s just above Wilshire Boulevard on Fairfax while I wait for the meeting across the road.   Then I cross Wilshire and go in.  David greets me all smiles like an old friend – he is an old friend.  Introduces me to the producer who in my memory was Arnie Kopelson.  The casting director was there too I think, Billy Hopkins who since Alien3 which he’d cast with Priscilla John had got me in for loads of things, including Speed which is for another post.  Maybe he wasn’t.  But there were a few people there watching me, and I immediately felt uncomfortable.  Like I was on the spot.  I suddenly realised that I had to make David look good.  We did some small talk then someone suggested we read.  There was probably someone there to read the off-lines.  I was shit.  My accent was terrible.  I apologised.  David smiled “It’s cool dude, just do your thing”  I tried it again.  I was shit again.  “Just use your own accent Ralphie” said Fincher, “Just do what you do“.    He was so kind and supportive.  I was in pieces. It was excruciating.

Sometimes I think that eternity blinks paying no due respect to logic

I’ve thought about this moment many times, and I don’t know why I didn’t seize it.  His dream must have seemed so close that he could scarcely fail to grasp it.  He could not know that it was already behind him…wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald…The Great Gatsby’s final paragraph.

I didn’t get the job.  Kevin Spacey did.  He smashed it.  He took a few jobs off me that year.  It was his year.  And the following year certainly was too.  We ended 1994 with one BBC job in Italy and nothing in Hollywood, broke.  We decided to move back to England, but not before I’d written a movie called New Year’s Day which would eventually get made in 1999 (see My Pop Life #75) and which is about – ouch – The Importance Of Disappointment.

..Give me your hand we are part of this plan we can force all this chaos to rhyme…

At some point during the post-production for Seven or Se7en as it was then written, David and Donya separated.  This was painful for everyone, and Jenny and I attempted our usual even-handed response to these painful events and stayed in touch with both parties.  David didn’t like that, or perhaps Donya used us against him in an argument.  In any event I have hardly seen him since 1995.   No bad feeling, just the end of an era.

Donya’s photograph of my wife Jenny Jules, 1994

It was an incredible opportunity in retrospect.  If I’d been cast in that role, it would certainly have changed my career.  I absolutely under-anticipated the stress of that meeting, thinking in my foolishness that David holding the door open would be perhaps enough to swing it for me.   It was a harsh lesson.   Many times I have played it over in my mind, re-entered the room, better prepared, psyched-up, played the scene properly like I’d planned it.  (Spacey played it exactly as I’d rehearsed it in the finished movie).   But I didn’t get it.  Even today, writing this, it bites me.  It was a gift horse and I gave it a thorough dental examination.   Oh well.  I’m still here.  Some things are just not meant to be.  No regrets.  Learning To Be.

Like all hinge moments one cannot eventually regret the way it went.  If I’d been cast in Seven we would have stayed in LA.  Or at least I would.  First and biggest problem.  We wouldn’t have bought a house in Brighton.  Tom, Millie and Lucy wouldn’t have moved down.   Scarlett and Tom wouldn’t have met.  Skye wouldn’t have been born.  I wouldn’t have played in The Brighton Beach Boys.  And on and on.  You cannot unmake a moment, even in your wishes.  And thus, once again, writing out one of my haunted moments in a blog post has allowed to me to understand the wound and clarify the misty darkness which surrounds it a little bit more.   And it becomes not a defeat but just another chapter in My Pop Life.

Look in the eyes of the water that falls
Hiding behind every flower and rock
Why do we dance on the wheel and forget
Life is a child that will never regret
Learning to be, be, be
Stepping away, I get closer each day
I’ve been looking for love to find me
Digging away, I will search I will pray
I’ve been waiting for truth to blind me

Learning To Be :

and Rainbow’s End – it’s not a great quality video, but it’s all there is :

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My Pop Life #171 : Praying For Time – George Michael

Praying For Time   –   George Michael

I may have too much but I’ll take my chances
Because god’s stopped keeping score…

Listen Without Prejudice was released in September 1990 and this was the first single from the album.  We listened to the LP all that winter 90/91, and I don’t think George Michael has ever bettered it.  Cowboys & Angels, Freedom 90, Heal The Pain, lovely cover of They Won’t Go When I Go.  And Praying For Time.  “tune”

Listen Without Prejudice – 1990

That autumn I was doing a play called Earwig by Paula Milne at The Pit, somewhere under The Barbican in London with the RSC.  Then I got a call from the agent for a meeting in Pinewood studios for Alien 3.  This was terribly exciting.  I adored the first Alien film, and was less keen on the second, but devoured it hungrily nonetheless.  The combination of horror and science fiction was thrilling and brilliantly done.  I gleaned a few details before the meeting – it was going to be set on a prison planet with no women except Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver.  It would directed by a young first-time director called David Fincher.   Much to the irritation of the RSC I had my (pretty long) hair shorn at Fish in D’Arblay Street – a number four if I recall.  I’d been going to Fish since I’d done West at The Donmar Warehouse in 1983, and they’d been close-up witnesses to the disappearing head-fur since then.  Anyway, I got offered the part of Aaron, or to be more accurate, Fincher recalled me and asked me which part I fancied playing.  HOW COMPLETELY THRILLING !!  (I thought)  IS THIS WHAT MY LIFE WILL BE LIKE NOW???  I chose Aaron.  The 2nd in command.  The survivor.  Good part.  Or so I thought. This is an extract from my diary at the time – an actor at his first Hollywood barbeque, getting burned.  Nobody explains what it’s going to be like, and even if they did, I didn’t listen.  Who does ?

*

Alien 3 – Paranoia in Pinewood

The six stages of Film Production : as seen carved into the wall in Pinewood, Studio Five, by someone presumably better-versed in the industry than I :

  1. Wild enthusiasm
  2. Disillusionment
  3. Panic
  4. Search For The Guilty
  5. Punish The Innocent
  6. Reward The Non-Involved 

 

17th Jan 1991.

Well.  After a heavy day’s filming on Scene 55 where Golic, (played by me old china plate  Paul McGann), is brought to the infirmary, I return to my dressing room to find rewrites have been pushed under my door.  Rewrites for the end of the movie.  I read them.  Disaster.  My character has gone from the everyman-yuppie-type-who-survives to something completely different : the thick-coward-type-who-gets-his-throat-cut-while-hiding-from-the-alien.   I feel like a horse has kicked me in the guts.  I march up to the director, David Fincher’s office, and demand a meeting with the writers, Walter Hill and David Giler, to discuss the part.  Having already filmed two scenes and therefore committed my character to celluloid, these changes are un-nerving to say the very least.  Fincher says he hates the rewrites, and don’t worry, it’ll be all right.  But he’s just the director.  Walter and David are also producing along with Sigourney herself.  I express with great and foolish bravery to Fincher that I need to know what I’m playing, and I need to know NOW.  We arrange a meeting for lunchtime next day.

18th Jan

At 11.am I get a call cancelling the meeting.  Panic.  I call my agent Michael Foster, the poison dwarf of Oxford Street whom I love dearly.  His advice : Don’t rock the boat, keep your head below the parapet, wear a tie and vote conservative (remember, this is 1991).  Above all, he advises, Do Not Upset Walter Hill, writer and producer of the film.  There are major Hollywood politics going on and I’m simply caught in the crossfire, my character being one pawn among many in a power game between the Giler/Hill axis and the Fincher/Fox camp.  It’s the moody stark Alien (1) vs the populist wham-bam Aliens (2).  I know what I prefer but evidently can’t afford to express my feeling to the wrong people.

At 2pm I get a call inviting me (since I’m not filming today) to the Halcyon Hotel in Holland Park – a car will be round to pick me up.  This is where Walter Hill and David Giler are staying.  The drive is smooth and tense. I go up in the lift to Room 50, and Walter greets me at the door wearing mirror shades.

Walter Hill, director of The Long Riders, 48 Hours, The Warriors, The Driver and more

By now I am shitting maisonettes but staying outwardly cool I hope.  Something to drink Ralph ?  I ask for tea, so we all have tea.  We chat, and Fincher is mentioned.  Non-committal words are exchanged.  Body language is tense, nervy from Hill, open, receptive from me.  I smile in what I hope is a relaxed fashion.  I’m wrong about one thing (probably more than one – Ed) – Walter Hill talks about going back to the simplicity of the first Alien movie, which cheers me up a bit.  So, Ralph, what about Aaron?  Well, I say, I’m here to ask for your help.  Hill doesn’t believe me.  Careful Ralph.  Be careful.  Be honest.  I talk about Fincher’s version of the character and how it conflicts with the rewrites. Hill shifts his weight and considers me.  “Aaron is a working class stupid guy, who is funny“.   I agree.  This is my bargaining position I say : I have no bargaining position.  Hill laughs.  He knows.    Is there anything I don’t like about the script?  Well, I say, can’t Aaron fight with the Alien??  If not at the end, then in the middle sequence with the fire? Astonishingly they agree with me and I gain a point.  But I can’t fight at the end.  And I have to be an 85 IQ – like Muhammed Ali or Danny from Withnail (they bizarrely console me with).  OK I say.  Fine by me I say.  Thrilled to be in your movie I say.  No heroics for me, and this will affect any Hollywood career I am to have, if indeed I am to have one.  “We all gotta serve the movie Ralph” says Walter Hill. who is getting paid something in the region of a million dollars serving the movie.  “I’m prepared to sit here til midnight until you’re happy with the way the character should be played…”  

I leave one and a half hours later, shaking hands.  I press the lift button.  I can still hear them and strain an ear down the corridor – what are they saying?  “Fuck the guy – get him off the picture”  ?    I don’t want to hear it anyway.  I walk out through the lobby feeling as tight and tense and screwed up as a piece of wire.  I feel like vomiting.  I am driven home, feeling shaky and weird.  Meet my brother Paul and go to see Ken Loach’s Hidden Agenda at Screen on the Green – flawed but good (Brian Cox was excellent) – with the memorable line :  “Rule One : Look After Your Own Balls

Afterward to the pub and drinks and I start to unwind.  I am now paranoid about being cut from the film (like Veronica Cartwright was from Alien as Walter had gently reminded me earlier – I don’t want to alarm you Ralph but, well, yes, actually I DO want to alarm you.  Don’t end up like Veronica Cartwright…)  She was the one who cried a lot.  I suddenly remember that an actor was sacked after four weeks filming on Aliens because they found out that he was on acid or something (!) and so they re-shot all the scenes he was in.  So even after a month’s filming you’re not safe.  Damn.

David Fincher & Sigourney Weaver on the set of Alien 3, Pinewood 1991

Meeting with Fincher the next day.  Hi dude how was your meeting?  Walter and David said you’d reached a compromise.  Oh, that’s what they called it?  I felt as if I’d been taken slowly from behind.  I informed Fincher that although I loved him spiritually, I had in fact (sad to say) sold him down the river (still some quiver when I deliver) and that I had accepted the working-class thicko comic character idea to save my own balls (see Rule One above).  Fincher says “The fight’s not over.  Remember we’re working for 18th century Fox here”

Jan 21st

The rewrites come through.  As I expected.  Well, we all gotta serve the movie.  Fear stalks the set.  Everyone is applying Rule One.  And as we shoot mangled remains of Alien victims in dark corridors, the Gulf War is being prosecuted with extreme prejudice, and as Brian Glover soberly remarked, we could go to Baghdad and see the real thing.

my old mate Danny Webb with Sigourney on set

Someone steals a continuity photo of Sigourney with head shaved and sells it to the Today newspaper.  A mole on the unit.  Someone from props gets sacked.  We’re all looking over our shoulders.

Feb 4th

Picked up from Archway Road by Bill my driver who informs me that Jordan Cronenweth, legendary DP who shot Blade Runner had been replaced by Alex Thomson over the weekend.  Brian Glover is picked up in Fulham Road and gets severe wobbles for the rest of the day.  “It’s a portent Ralph, I wouldn’t be surprised if this film doesn’t get finished“.   Jordan’s disappearance has the opposite effect on me.  I finally reach my long-lost fuck-it level.  And I think : FUCK IT !   In the next scene I have only my vest and long johns, so my chest is showing.  Nick in make-up takes a long look : ” Ooh no, it’ll have to go”  What will?  “The chest hair love.  It’ll have to come off”   Jesus Christ.  I go all queenie for a second and flounce back to my dressing room to ponder my pectorals.  Shaved chest?  Never in all my born days….

Fuck It.  I don’t even phone Jenny to moan at her, because as soon as she hears my anxious paranoid actor’s whinge she’ll just search for things to say which won’t upset me.  No.  It’s my decision and I’ll shave the fucker.  Jesus Christ !  I’m an actor!!  Actors do all that shit!  It’s for the part, and the money.  Aaron shaves his chest.  I suddenly saw, for the first time since I was 15, what my body actually looked like.  I have to report that it could have been better.  Went straight home to the bench press and weights That Night.  But it was a liberating shave, a plunge into Fuck-It-Dom which released much of my tension and anxiety about the film.  FUCK IT !!!

Feb 5th

The canteen sequence.  Rewrites still coming in.  An IRA attack on Downing Street provides a fitting backdrop.  Sigourney is taking no prisoners today.  First it’s the hair:  “Your hair is too long Ralph, we should put some lice in it”   Then an hour later it’s the costume:  “How come Aaron gets to wear a nice clean shirt, while we’re all in dirty crap here?”     “It’s vanity pure and simple”  says the deep Barnsley burr of Brian Glover.  Thanks mate.   “So the stupid Aaron 85 looks really cool then” says Sigourney.  “Mr Normal”.  She stonks off.   I feel really weird now.  All my paranoias confirmed !   I think she is anxious about having a shaved head, but she has successfully managed to dump her insecurity onto me.

spoiler : Brian Glover is taken by the Alien in the canteen

 McGann wanders over and I tell him what has happened.  Sigourney walks past us :  “Oh look – a little tete-a-tete between Mr Sublime and Mr Ridiculous.  I’ll leave you guys to work out who’s  who”….  Paul turns to me.  “She’s going the right way for a smack in the mouth”.    At the tea break another actor tells me that Sigourney didn’t want any stars in the film and doesn’t speak to Charles Dance.  I am reminded of having my close-ups cut from Buster, and Phil Collins’ performance on Wogan, when he was asked who was playing Biggs (me) and he replied “Oh some new younger actor”.    You’re nobody in this town ’til everybody thinks you’re a bastard.

Aaron ’85’

Feb 6th

I’m being made up on set as Sigourney glides past.  “Don’t make him look too pretty I have to walk past him”…   ‘Trust your image Sigourney’,  I reply.  She hovers, so for something to say I tell her that my death has now been re-written FIVE TIMES so far, including : Alien eats me, Golic cuts my throat, I fall into lead mould, Company machine-gun me.  “I asked them to kill you off on page ten” she says.  A couple of hours later she pokes her tongue out at me.  Hey!  It occurs to me, perhaps she wants to fuck me !

She should be so lucky.

*

Years later I discover that Walter Hill has an eye condition that means he had to wear protective shades even indoors.  That Jordan Cronenweth was too ill to finish the shoot even with his son Jeff assisting him due to Parkinson’s.   After the premiere, Sigourney apologises for being mean.  Fincher encourages me to move to Los Angeles or LaLa as he calls it, so after our wedding in 1992, we do.   And later still.  Jenny’s sister Lucy Jules (see My Pop Life #135) gets to sing with George Michael on two world tours.  One night he sang Praying For Time.  I still think it’s his best song.

 

My Pop Life #157 : By The Beautiful Blue Danube – Johann Strauss II

An der schönen blauen Donau   –   Johann Strauss II

I immediately smile when I hear the first few phrases of this and I don’t stop smiling until it’s finished.  What a truly tremendous piece of music.  Dance music, pop music, classical music, whatever.  Music.  It is a waltz, which means it is in 3/4 time.  When you play or dance a waltz you count 1,2,3 – 1,2,3.   Actually that’s the easy part.  As a self-taught pianist I’ve always struggled with beats in a bar.  Where’s the four ?? Anyway, you count 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3.  And don’t step on her toes.  Very important.

Der Donau near Vienna

The Danube is Europe’s 2nd-longest longest river (after the Volga in Russia) and runs from the Black Forest in Germany (where is is called der Donau) all the way through Austria, Slovakia, Hungary (called the Duna as it runs through Budapest rather beautifully), Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova and Ukraine where it deltas into the Black Sea.   It is (tragically today in late June 2016) the longest river in the EU.

Johann Strauss II

Johann Strauss II was Austrian and grew up by der schönen blauen Donau in Vienna. Photos of him suggest he was a biker, but this is a modern interposition because the motorbike had yet to be invented properly.   He also resemble a rocker, greased back hair and mutton chops.  He was clearly a dude.  He was as near as you got to a pop star for the 1850s/60s.   If you were a musician in the 19th Century you tended to gravitate to Vienna, much as New Orleans was a musical magnet in the first half of the 20th Century.

All of his family were musicians, and his father, Johann Strauss I,  was a popular composer and the leader of an orchestra.  Dad didn’t want number one son to become a musician and whipped him when he discovered the secret violin lessons he was taking (with a member of his own orchestra).  Undeterred, number one son eventually held his first concert for music he had written at Dommayer Casino in Vienna in 1844 after many other venues, fearful of Dad’s influence, shied away from hosting young Johann.  So enraged was Dad that he never played the Dommayer again.

                                                                                                       Johann Strauss I

In 1848 revolution swept through Europe and father and son found themselves on opposite sides of the struggle, father siding with the Habsburg Royal Family and writing his most famous piece the Radetsky March the same year  and son being arrested for playing the revolutionary anthem La Marseillaise in public.   The following year Strauss senior died and Johann the younger merged their two orchestras.  The waltz was then the most popular dance in Europe thanks to Johann Strauss I and his contemporary Joseph Lanner, and Johann Jr extended the form and took it into the stratosphere becoming probably the most successful composer of dance music in the 19th Century, touring Europe with his orchestra to great acclaim.  An Der Schönen Blauen Danube was written in 1866, and premiered in Vienna, Paris and New York in 1867.  It was a sensation.  It still is.  One of the world’s most popular pieces of music, but that’s never frightened me.  When I was younger I preferred the cool of undiscovered, unpopular music.  My ears led me here though.  Bless my ears.

I feel like this piece of music has been in my head forever.  I cannot remember when I purchased the vinyl LP, early 20s in London no doubt, but it was already familiar to me.  It is, it must be confessed, a tune.  The night I danced to it in ?1991? lingers lovingly in the memory since we had all been partying at the Archway Road flat since Saturday evening, and it was now Sunday morning.  The party was over but many people were still present, still drunk, still happy.  It was late summer I believe, Jenny and I had invited the gang round – why or who or what I cannot recall but  – among those present were : Jo Martin, Michael Rose, Roger Griffith, Jo Melville, Michael Buffong, Paulette, Beverley, Paul my brother, Colin, Michael too? Pedro ? Richard (Lady G?), Saffron Myers, Julian Danquah and….hmmm here it gets hazy.  If you were there please let me know !  In any event it was around five or six in the morning when we’d played all the Michael Jackson, Earth Wind & Fire, Marley, house music, Sly Stone and ska records in the collection and we needed a party closer.  I rustled around in the box and found the LP.

This is pre-CD by the way !   The response to those opening phrases was magical.  We each took a partner and waltzed gently around the front room, pretending we knew what we were doing, pretty sure I partnered with Saffron letting the alcohol lead our steps, slowly at first then with increasing vigour and abandon as the music swelled, swirling merrily around the carpet and onto the furniture, swapping partners, spinning, smiling, spinning.  We laughed we fell over we span and span around and around.  Exhilaration and satisfied exhaustion followed and we collapsed in a pile smiling.  Time for a coffee.   Happy days.  Happy happy music.

The piece is performed every New Year’s Day in Vienna by the Vienna Philharmonic  and beamed live around the world.   Here is the result from 2010.

and here is the wonderful Daniel Bahrenboim in 2014 :

My Pop Life #109 : New Jack Hustler – Ice-T

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I got nothing to lose, much to gain, on my brain I got a capitalist migraine

I gotta get paid tonight, you motherfuckin right…

…go to school ? I ain’t goin’ for it – kiss my ass, bust the cap on the Moet !

*

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Deep in 1991.  I’ve finished shooting Alien 3 in Pinewood.  The Gulf War is over.  Jenny and I are living in Archway Road, and we’ve holidayed in Positano (My Pop Life #29).  The Channel Tunnel is almost completed.   Tottenham Hotspur have won the FA Cup and Paul Gasgoigne has ruptured his cruciate ligament.  People are going to prison over the Poll Tax, including Labour MPs.   To come : Jenny will play Mediyah in Pecong at the Tricycle Theatre, and I will film The Crying Game in Hoxton and meet David Bowie one night (see My Pop Life 54).   Musically we were at a crossroads – Nirvana released Smells Like Teen Spirit which blew my head off, Massive Attack released Unfinished Sympathy which put it back on, Jenny was hugging Optimistic by Sounds Of Blackness, and we were both digging Seal, Prince and Lenny Kravitz.   Hip hop was at a true crossroads with Gangsta Rap bidding to take over the commercial end of the scene from more ‘conscious’ hip hop acts from the old skool.   Huge sales for Tupac, Biggie and others followed OG Ice T and his role in the film New Jack City which came out in England in August 1991.

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Wesley Snipes in New Jack City (1991)

The scene I’d witnessed in Washington D.C. whilst working on my hip-hop play Sanctuary in 1989 (see My Pop Life 33) was now writ large on the screen with Wesley Snipes in the lead role, Ice-T playing a cop and providing much of the soundtrack.  I’d get to work with Wesley a few hundred years later in Bulgaria on The Shooter – he’s a solid decent-enough guy.  By then (2004)  he was about to go to prison for non-payment of tax.  He still had a loyal and very cool entourage of eleven people.  All of whom depended on Wesley continuing to make movies…

New Jack City was written by Thomas Lee Wright and directed by Mario Van Peebles, who also appeared himself.  We heard about it months before it came out, one of the most anticipated films of 1991.  A hip hop crack gang movie inhabiting the same space as my newest play “The House That Crack Built” which had just been commissioned and then rejected by the BBC (see My Pop Life 61).  It concerned a young man whose father was absent and whose family was about to be evicted from their apartment-above-a-diner in Washington DC.  He decides to sell crack to help his mum which initially works well, but when she becomes addicted and his ambitions make him enemies who are armed and vicious it all goes horribly wrong.  A cliche perhaps, but somewhat inspired by my own adolescence.  Of course all the characters in the play were black.  This was what I had found in DC.  Crack was a new drug, a crystallisation of cocaine and tremendously powerful.   One hit will send you into space.  Users feel powerful and indestructible.  Horrible shit is what it is.  Any illegal drug will be the province of gangsters and underground big business.  In a way the black community in the USA were having their “mafia moment” like the Italians, Irish, and English had done before them.  Their piece of the pie.  America being built on slavery and criminal activity, genocide and gang-war, this is all perfectly normal.  New Jack City had Ice-T playing a New York cop going undercover into Wesley Snipes crack-dealing gang, who were in their turn facing off with another gang for turf and profits.  Pawns in a divide and rule game?

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Russell Wong, Mario  Van Peebles, Judd Nelson, Ice-T

So familiar, but with black faces, pretty new.  Judd Nelson is the only white character, We also meet Bill Nunn, a young Chris Rock, and Allen Payne with Michael Michelle and Russell Wong being stereotypical black woman and asian (techy) man.  It’s Hollywood folks.  But we were all completely thrilled by this new genre becoming so mainstream so quickly.  The result of New Jack Swing – the soul beat of the early 90s – with Blackstreet, Guy and Teddy Riley, singers like Bobby Brown and Keith Sweat – colliding with the new genre of hip-hop and producing stuff like Ice-T’s album OG and Heavy D and The Boyz (see My Pop Life #33) – it was an exciting moment.  Jenny and I completely loved – and still love – the track New Jack Hustler.  It is right up there with the very best moments in hip-hop culture, a monster song.

New Jack Hustler perfectly encapsulates the paradox of black capitalism (like all capitalism it starts with a hustle) empowering the self while spreading fear through the neighbourhood, being a big man while murdering brothers (niggas – of course).   Ice-T’s brilliant rap is both a boast and a warning, his self-awareness of the ghetto contradiction makes this a truly exemplary piece of work.  And it isn’t without humour too, the imaginary impressionable kid gazing up at his gold chains and guns asking “how can I be down?” gets this answer :

What’s up? You say you wanna be down?
Ease back, or muthafucka get beat down
Out my face, fool I’m the illest
Bulletproof, I die harder than Bruce Willis

Got my crew in effect, I bought ’em new Jags
So much cash, gotta keep it in Hefty bags
All I think about is keys and Gs
Imagine that, me workin’ at Mickey D’s

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One of the highlights of the major hip-hop doc ‘The Art Of Rap‘ is the moment when Peruvian-American rapper Immortal Technique raps those very lines at Ice-T as they stand on the New York sidewalk, to both of their amusement.   My old compadre Andy Baybutt shot and directed that film after making a deal with Ice-T that it would be called “An Ice-T film, directed by Ice-T” but c’mon, Andy made it.   Ice chose the characters and conducted the interviews.  He would open his address book and say “come to the corner in 15 minutes, we’re shooting a rap movie” and they’d just shoot the result.  It’s a superb film about how these guys actually put a rap together, and although Missy Elliott should be there, and two or three others, the cast is everyone who matters (and who’s still alive) in the history of rap.

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Ice-T is an interesting dude.  Born Tracy Marrow on the East Coast, he moved to LA after both parents died.  He got his name from being able to recite chunks of black-pimp-turned novelist Iceberg Slim for his schoolmates in Crenshaw High.   Seriously interested in heavy metal he co-founded Body Count a hard rock band in 1991 and their track Cop Killer was hugely controversial.  He’s done reality TV, straight acting, married a swimsuit model ‘Coco Marie‘ and put her on his LP covers, appeared as a regular in Law & Order and run a record label.  I still think this song is his finest hour.  The deceptively smart lyrics contain their own commentary on the ghetto and the way out :

Is this a nightmare? Or the American dream?
…Pregnant teens, children’s screams
Life is weighed on the scales of a triple beam
You don’t come here much, and ya better not
Wrong move (Bang) Ambulance cot

I gotta get more money than you got
So what, if some muthafucka gets shot?
That’s how the game is played
Another brother slayed, the wound is deep But they’re givin’ us a band-aid
My education’s low but I got long dough
Raised like a pit bull, my heart pumps nitro

Sleep on silk, lie like a politician
My Uzi’s my best friend, cold as a mortician
Lock me up, it’s genocidal catastrophe
There’ll be another one after me – a hustler

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D.J. Aladdin

All mixed by genius turntablist and producer D.J. Aladdin who combines samples from the ubiquitous James Brown (Blues & Pants provides the horn rise), Sly & The Family Stone (the magnificently cracked-out drum sample – my heart pumps nitro – with a break from You Can Make It If You Try), while the guitar twang is sampled from Bobbi Humphrey‘s Jasper Country Man.   The whole piece is like a gangsta manifesto, but dressed up as a cautionary tale and it was the point where I stopped buying hip-hop.  Rappers took the ironies in this song and flattened them out into macho posturing.  A whole generation of kids grew up on guns, hoes, cars, gangs and death and were convinced that they were all cool.  Capitalism won as it usually seems to.

Conspiracy theorists would have you believe that just as the black community started to get organised and angry, spearheaded by figures like Public Enemy, Ice-T and KRS-One, the ghettos were suddenly flooded with cheap weapons and crack cocaine.  The next 15 years were all about black-on-black crime and prison, major labels reaping the big profits.

Ice-T could see it coming.

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Ice-T pointing his fingers at you pretending he has a gun

My Pop Life #104 : Smokestack Lightning – Howlin’ Wolf

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Smokestack Lightning   –   Howlin’ Wolf

tell me, baby,
Where did ya, stay last night?

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My dear friend Dona Croll posted a video of Howlin’ Wolf onto my Facebook page this morning and there was no turning back.  I have known Dona since the 1980s, I’m sure she won’t mind me telling you, but from where and when we met I cannot say.  Perhaps she was in the cast for the London’s Burning pilot when I met actor Gary MacDonald.  I was playing a policeman.  Most of the cast were black, but not all.  We decided to have a kickabout one lunchtime.  Of course, being in uniform meant I got kicked about all over the park.  Fair enough.

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But in the small bubble of British acting Dona and I would cross paths regularly at Tricycle Theatre first nights, anything that Paulette Randall was doing, maybe at auditions.   When I wrote The House That Crack Built for the BBC in 1989 (see My Pop Life #61), Dona was my first choice for the rapping crack-addicted Mom and she was brilliant.    I know she reads this blog so this one is partly for you dear Dona, and partly for my brer Eamonn Walker, Eamonn Roderique, E.   When I saw the clip of Wolf I immediately thought of Eamonn, because a) they favour and b) Eamonn played Howlin Wolf in a film called Cadillac Records in 2008.

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Cadillac Records was the story of Chess Records lightly disguised.   It’s a good film but while being not entirely satisfying like most biopics and most music films, it nevertheless has a clutch of wonderful performances both of the thespian and musical variety, and Eamonn is quite sensational.   He inhabited that role like he does all his roles.   Wolf was a big growler who played a mean blues harp, so E had to learn the instrument before the shoot.   Adrien Brody played Polish immigrant Leonard Chess who started Chess Records by selling blues and ‘race’ records out of the back of his Cadillac with his brother Phil in 1950 on the South Side of Chicago.  It grew to become the most important record label in the history of the blues, releasing crucial work from Chuck Berry, played by Mos Def in the film, Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright), Little Walter (Colombus Short), Willie Dixon (Cedric The Entertainer), Etta James (Beyoncé Knowles) and Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker) among many others.

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But Wait – Eamonn worked with Beyoncé !!!   She was very good as Etta James I thought, but I am unashamedly biased.  I love Beyoncé.  A lot.   Anyway, moving back to Howlin’ Wolf.

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Chester Burnett was a giant of a man from Mississippi who physically dominated any room he was in at 6’3”, and who adopted his name Howlin Wolf from his grandfather.   He learned guitar from Charley Patton during the 1930s, harmonica from Sonny Boy Williamson II in the 1940s, and songs from the likes of Robert Johnson, Leroy Carr and Son House.   He moved steadily north, first to Arkansas, then later to Memphis where he recorded some sides for Sam Phillips and finally, unusually, driving his own car and with $4000 in his pocket, he went to Chicago.  Somehow avoiding all the classic blues temptations that he was singing about – liquor, gambling, loose women of a variety of types, he hired a regular band to accompany him, including Hubert Sumlin who moved up from Memphis.  Unusually for a bandleader, Burnett paid his musicians on time, and also offered benefits such as health insurance, he therefore had the pick of the best in Chicago for years.  Featured imageSmokestack Lightning was released in March 1956 and made the Billboard R&B charts, it is now considered a classic.  Howlin Wolf had learned it back in the 30s as a variation on a train blues played by Charlie Patton and others, sitting at dawn watching the trains sparking through their chimneys at night “Shinin’, just like gold”.   It is a massively evocative three minutes of the blues with growls, yodels, harmonica wails and a wonderful circular bluesy guitar riff from Mr Sumlin which stays on E (appropriately enough) – just one chord for the whole song.  “Girl don’t you hear me cryin?”    Eamonn plays and sings it on the Soundtrack to Cadillac Records.  I couldn’t be more proud.

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Eamonn Walker is my brother from another mother.  It was gradual, and yet somehow immediate like all the best friendships.   We met when he played opposite my soon-to-be wife Jenny Jules in Pecong at the Trike in 1991, Paulette’s Randall‘s production of Steve Carter‘s Caribbean update of Medea, which Jenny won an award for because she was extraordinary.  The battling men – Victor Romero-Evans and Eamonn Walker do so in rhyme.   American actress Pat Bowie played Granny Root, massively talented Jo Martin and Cecilia Noble the other women, Beejaye Joseph and Jax Williams the eye-candy dancers.   It was a great great production.   Eamonn used to come and see Jenny and I on Sundays after seeing his twins Deke & Jahdine who were in Enfield with their mum Chris.  We were in Archway Road and thus on the way home to Sandra Kane his partner, and young boy Kane Walker (now in his 20s).    We became close family and have remained so ever since.   We played football together for the Hoxton Pirates for a few seasons on Hackney Marshes and all over South London on Sunday mornings until I broke my nose during a game – a loud crack, a violent searing pain and suddenly I was lying in a large pool of blood.    E was one of the first people in England to have a mobile phone – he’s a techno geek – and he had it behind him in a pouch at the back of the goal – he was the Pirates goalie, and he called the ambulance.    Eamonn was plucked from the ranks by Lynda LaPlante and seeded in New York were he sprouted the leaves and branches of prison drama Oz followed by much much more besides, films, TV series, he has had a really strong profile in America for years, a profile that he simply, oddly does not have in the UK.   So many black British actors have made the same journey over the last 20 years and had success, some of them becoming English stars too like Idris Elba.   Others, like Eamonn, (ranked number 11 in a US poll of “favourite British actors”)  are never even mentioned in UK media articles about black actor’s success in Hollywood.   Like a massive blind spot in the media, and partly in the UK business.   We carry on.

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In 2011 through 2012 we lived together in Hollywood,  just off Mulholland Drive in the hills above Universal with a balcony view that stretched from the Woodland Hills to the Hollywood sign and beyond.  It was good to spend time.   I would walk Runyon Canyon every day, from the top down and back up.   From that base camp E scored another Dick Wolf project: NBC’s Chicago Fire which is now in its fifth series and has him living in Chicago 10 months of every year but scoring his pension.  He deserves every cent.    Eamonn, Dona : this is for you, I love you both.

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Jeffrey Wright, Eamonn Walker, Adrien Brody

This could be the longest thread ever because of links that go in every direction – into the movie The Boat That Rocked, the band Birds Of Tin, my friendship with Simon Korner, Andy Oliver, all of Eamonn’s family, Jenny’s Mum and Dad and on and on.

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But perhaps I will mention that when we adopted the beautiful Devon Rex boycat from Jason & Tash in February 2008 (just after my god-daughter Delilah Rose was born) we decided to call him Chester, after Howlin Wolf.   This beautiful animal was very special, very wise, very funny, very cuddly.  We later bought Chester a companion, a Cornish Rex and named her Mimi.  Chester had a heart condition which we discovered when he was two, an a-rhythmical heartbeat.   He would live only another two years and passed away aged four while I was working in Tennessee on a film in the fall of 2011.  RIP Chester.  The greatest cat.

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a magnificent live version from 1964 :

My Pop Life #20 : Everything Must Change – Oleta Adams

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Everything Must Change   –   Oleta Adams

…the young become the old and mysteries do unfold
cause that the way of time nothing and no one goes unchanged…

Jenny – my wife – absolutely loved this first LP from Oleta Adams with the hit single “Get Here (If You Can)” and the dancefloor groove “The Rhythm Of Life”.  Very good.   This was the classic song hidden in the depths of the LP, written by Bernard Ighner.   Covered by many others.   The early 90s.     Not kids anymore, getting on with being grown-up.  Jenny and I decided to get married in 1990, and a giant discussion emerged which would last for several years.   I exaggerate only slightly.  The big questions were when? and where?

We lived on Archway Road at that point, the middle section which runs from suicide bridge up to the tube station and Jackson’s Lane.  London N6.   Since Jenny’s family are Catholics, and mine are do-what-you-want, we arranged a meeting with the priest at St Josephs on Highgate Hill, a large and rather formidable catholic church perched next to Waterlow Park, where we could hold some kind of reception.  Father Patrick, a white-haired kindly Irishman spoke to us about the arrangement.  We book the church for one year later – June 1991 would be ideal.  We’ll have to do some evening classes ‘in marriage’, which we’re quite happy to do, and we’ll be expected to attend Mass on a Sunday morning about once a month.  Or Jenny will at least.   It all seems jovial and easy and we shake on it and walk up to Highgate Village for a celebratory drink.  There are some nice pubs in Highgate, notably The Flask, but for some reason we walked back down Jacksons Lane to The Black Lion on the upper reaches of Archway Road near the woods.   We had a few, and had a fight, about what I simply cannot remember but it was a serious fight because the following day we walked round to the church and asked to cancel the wedding.

Luckily we hadn’t announced the date, or got any cards printed up or booked the hall/cake/car/band.  So the wedding was off then.   We weren’t off, but the wedding was.   We were secretly relieved, and disappointed at the same time.   But underneath all the bickering and hesitation, we clearly agreed on one crucial thing – the wedding mattered, and it had to be right.   For entirely different reasons I’m sure.   My reasons?  Both of my parents had, at that point, been married three times – each – and I’d attended the various ceremonies with Paul & Andrew and Rebecca.   There’s one particularly grim photograph of us boys at the Brighton Registry Office marriage of our Dad (whom we called ‘John Brown’ after the divorce from my mum) to Lynne Brewer, his girlfriend and former pupil.   Andrew (10) has a fringe and a smile rather plastered onto his face, Paul and I have groovy teardrop collar shirts – I guess it’s 1974 – and truly miserable glum faces.   That was my dad’s 2nd wedding.   His third, to wonderful Beryl, was a happier affair, and lasts to this day I’m happy to witness.   My mum’s three marriages were a) to my dad, b) to JD (Rebecca’s dad), and c) to Alan which worked for a while, but only for a while.   So marriage for the younger me was a bit of a joke to be honest.   Fraught with issues to say the least.   The fight in the pub was a sign that I wasn’t ready to be married – perhaps, as I’d always claimed, I didn’t really want to be married.   That’s how I grew up, all my 20s “I’m never getting married”.   Beware of what you say in your 20s.   You may be mistaken.   I sure was.   But neither of us were ready to get married in 1990 – even in a year’s time.  When we cancelled the wedding we didn’t cancel each other.   We got closer, eventually.   But these moments of certainty are so fleeting, the moments of doubt so pervasive.  That’s partly what marriage is, a pegging out of cloth in the wind, pinning down one area of doubt at least, making a shelter in the woods that will be there at the end of day.

Things were changing – aren’t things always changing ?  Mandela is released from prison, Poll Tax riots in Trafalgar Square, the Soviet Union melting like a globally-warmed iceberg, Saddam invades Kuwait.   And at some point that autumn I am offered the role of Aaron – ’85’ –  in Alien 3 by David Fincher.   I’ll save that for another song, but it meant that we could afford to get married – at some point in the future.   When we were ready…

As for Oleta Adams, she was “discovered” by Kurt Smith and Roland Orzabal and invited to join Tears For Fears as singer and pianist, and she appears on the Seeds Of Love LP.  Her own debut Circle Of One, from where Everything Must Change comes, was released a year later.  I’ll confess that we didn’t keep up with Ms Adams who has released six further LPs, but she still performs from time to time with TFF to sing Woman In Chains.