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

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Superman ft. Bucie   –   Black Coffee

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

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

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

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

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

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Kerryn Pitt

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Table Mountain from Khayelitsha Township

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

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

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

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Luke Tyler & Mark Elderkin

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John Stockwell

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Olivier Martinez

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

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

Anyway.

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

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

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Luke on his shark boat

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Luke and Great White Shark off Gansbaai

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

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

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Simons Town, False Bay

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

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

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

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Seal Island

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

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

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

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

Right thanks”  I said.

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

Good to know”  he said.

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

What happened?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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Sorry babe I’m already happily married

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

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

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

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

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Effortless grace and lucky guy

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

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

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The handsome couple were married 3 years later

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

My favourite memory of the shoot was this moment :

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My favourite shot of Halle was this :

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

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

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the blue rope with the knot which saved us

My Pop Life #180 : Boya Ye – M’bilia Bel

Boya Ye   –   M’bilia Bel

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I bought this beauty as a 12″ single in 1986 at Stern’s African Music Shop in Whitfield St W1, just north of Fitzroy Square, and just below Samuel French’s Theatre Bookshop on the corner of Warren St.  Opposite Stern’s was the Diwan-E-Khas restaurant which served the finest North Indian food in London back in the 80s, alongside their sister restaurant the Diwan-E-Am in Drummond Street, behind Euston about half a mile away.  (see My Pop Life #136 )
The counter at Sterns Records in the mid-80s
You can just about see a record by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan on that picture in the corner (top left).  They also stocked zouk and calypso from the Caribbean and other bits and pieces.  The shop had opened in 1983 with a little ceremony on the pavement involving drums and blessings.  The vibe in the shop was outstanding, and so was the selection of music.  The first time -or apparently the 2nd (Fela Kuti !) –  I went in there was to find the Franco & TPOK Jazz LP ’20eme Anniversaire’ which I’d heard whilst buying weed in Islington one night and had my little musical ears blown off  (See My Pop Life #38 )  Since that auspicious purchase I had returned for further Congolese magic : Pablo Lubadika Porthos, Tout Choc, Zaiko Langa Langa, more Franco, always more Franco, Papa Wemba, a wonderful Gabonese singer called Regine Feline and this wonderful single from M’bilia Bel fronting Franco’s rival camp of Tabu Ley.  The now-familiar cascade of overlapping guitar cadences and rumba polyrhythms led by a simply joyous lead vocalist who had been discovered singing with Sam Mangwana by bandleader Tabu Ley Rochereau, who along with Franco was one of the giants of Congolese music.
Tabu Ley Rochereau
He’d written a song for her Eswi Yo Wapi, recorded it with his mighty band Orchestre Afrisa International, it became a smash hit, they’d got married and her next dozen singles dominated the musical and dance landscape not just of the Congo, but the whole of Africa for the next 10+ years, and loosened Franco’s grip on the musical landscape.  She was hugely popular.
This album – released on the Sterns label – documents these years superbly : they are all classic african pop/dance tunes that the rest of Africa calls “DRC Music” – dance music from the Democratic Republic of Congo.   Which is almost funny because Congo hasn’t been democratic since Patrice Lumumba the first president after independence was arrested, tortured and killed by a combination of familiar forces (MI6, CIA, Belgian troops) in 1961.    Without going into detail, the history of Congo since then has been one of corruption and arms-length control by foreign companies who have stripped the nation of its huge mineral wealth – particularly the southern state of Katanga which produces cobalt, tin, copper, uranium and diamonds, and where Lumumba was executed after 84 days in office.   Torn apart by war and conflict, other states have become involved especially in the eastern provinces alongside Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi, with different forces representing somewhat shadowy interests fighting the Congolese Army and each other, including smaller private groups such as The Lord’s Resistance Army from Uganda all crossing the border with impunity, terrorising the locals and raping the women as a weapon and tactic of war.
The prize is coltan, from which is extracted tantalum, used in most electronic components and devices including mobile phones.  During the war with Rwanda in the 1990s, Rwanda became a leading exporter of coltan, stolen from mines in Eastern Congo.  Competing militias funded their operations with this prized mineral, and who knows who took what percentage to turn a blind eye to the rape both of the land and the people.
Lynn Nottage, Pulitzer-Prize-winning writer of Ruined in 2010
In 2009 Jenny was offered the lead in a play set in this part of the world : Lynn Nottage‘s Ruined, at the Almeida Theatre.  The play is set in a brothel in the war-zone near Goma, in the Eastern Congo.  This establishment is run by Mama Nadi, a fierce madam who takes in “ruined” local women to service the various militias who come through the territory. It is an extraordinary play which won the Pulitzer Prize for Lynn just before rehearsal started.
Indhu Rubasingham in rehearsal for Ruined at The Almeida
The director was Indhu Rubasingham who had already directed Jenny in Lynn’s earlier work Fabulation at The Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn in 2005/6.  So the team were reunited and set to work on this dynamic story, by turns dramatic, raw, amusing, tragic and inspiring.  It bears witness to some of the worst crimes in modern history and a series of stories buried, where women’s bodies mirror the nation they stand in, ravaged, fought over, ruined.   Mama Nadi was an extraordinary part for Jenny and she ate it up with great relish, much pain, and real commitment.  At some point before they started I remembered M’bilia Bel the great Kinshasa diva and dug out the 12″ single to play for Jenny.
By now we we on The Internet and there was footage of the singer we could watch – brilliant footage of her dressed to kill, dancing to seduce and singing to raise a revolution.   Jenny didn’t base her performance on the singer by any means but it was a window into a Congolese world of women and a certain tough independent proud defiance came through very strongly.    I made a CD of Congolese music for Indhu too – Franco & Tabu Ley of course, Zaiko Langa Langa, Papa Wemba and Werrason bringing us up to date, a wonderful sweep of sounds from Kinshasa.
The night before first preview in Islington the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull which had been simmering since late 2009 suddenly erupted with a vengeance and left a gigantic ash cloud sitting over the Atlantic Ocean & Europe, grounding thousands of planes and preventing Lynn’s husband Tony from flying in for the show.  The cloud hung for about a week and prevented Lynn from going home to New York a few days later.  It was all rather dramatic.
Jenny didn’t tell me anything about the play because she wanted me to experience it live on the night when I saw it for the first time.  This is usually the case when I see her productions.  I end up seeing them multiple times – between 5 & 10 normally, so the effect only works once.   It’s worth it though.  The 15th April 2010 was the first preview and when I entered the auditorium was thrilled to find it converted into an equatorial rainforest with a wooden-slatted speakeasy on a revolve nestled at it’s heart, presided over by an immensely powerful performance by Jenny as Mama Nadi, nurturing her girls, workers, prostitutes who’d been abused and raped and could no longer find a man to accept them;  serving soldiers who would sweep in and dominate the space, but need drink and music and dance in this unstable & constantly shifting war-zone.
Mama Nadi
An outstanding piece of writing, inspired somewhat by Mother Courage, but shining light on a hidden part of the world which we use- at arm’s length – without thought.  Brilliant and moving performances from Michelle Asante, Pippa Bennett-Warner and Kehinde Fadipe as the ruined girls living a nightmare as survivors gave voice to Lynn Nottage’s rarely-heard-from female characters, while Steve Toussaint, Lucien Msamati, David Ajala and Silas Carson portrayed the soldiers, the travelling merchant and the gem-smuggler.  The music  was played by Joseph Roberts and Akintaye Akinbode and written by Dominic Kanza and it provided a stripped-down yet infectious rumba soundtrack for the girls to dance to, either with a soldier who has been forced to leave his gun at the door, or with each other.
The title was explained early on : when a girl is raped with a bayonet, she is no longer capable of giving birth, and thus is “ruined”.
By the end of the show and Jenny’s last moments with Lucien I was in bits and had to leave the theatre and weep quietly on my own for fifteen minutes before re-entering the bar and the space and find familiar friends to congratulate and hug.  I was actually devastated.
It was a huge, magnificent performance and it changed both of our lives.  Some months later, Jenny won the Critic’s Circle Award as best actress, voted on by the nations theatre critics  – a massive acknowledgement of her achievement.  David Suchet won best actor and they were pictured together – we’d all worked together on NCS Manhunt in 2001.   A year later Jenny was cast to play Mama Nadi again, this time at Arena Stage in Washington D.C. in a production directed by Charles Randolph-Wright.  We later learned that Lynn had suggested Jenny for the lead.    Again it was a stunning production.
Now we live in Brooklyn where I eventually met Lynn’s husband Tony Gerber – a director – at dinner one night and we have become fast friends here.   Tony has been back to the Congo recently to make another documentary about the militias and although things have calmed down considerably it is still an unstable area.    And Lynn went back too.  After researching the play there she returned to see a five-hour production of Ruined in Kinshasa in 2011 which tested her artistic generosity since they had added great chunks of dialogue along with the inevitable 10-minute musical interludes.
I’ve still never been there, and it is a huge longing of mine, mainly for the music, but also for the great River Congo.   Franco died long ago, Tabu Ley in 2013 but M’bilia Bel is still going, although is based, like many successful African musicians, in Paris.  The younger generation are now sampling the golden age of soukous for hip hop tracks, rapping in the local language Lingala.  Despite a few attempts online I still cannot understand it so I can’t tell you what Boya Ye is about I’m afraid.
A few short weeks after Ruined closed (in triumph!) in London, Jenny and I flew down to South Africa for the first World Cup to take place on that continent.   One of my early memories of Cape Town was sitting in a taxi listening to some music pumping out of the speakers and asking the driver who was playing.  “DRC Music” he’d said.  On my birthday in Greenpoint Stadium England were once again a huge disappointment of course drawing 0-0 with Algeria.  We went on to Fatboy Slim’s party in town and celebrated just being there with Billy The Bee and others, but the World Cup isn’t about England.   It was moving and instructive to see how as the African teams got knocked out one by one – the host nation first ! until only Ghana were left, the fans coalesced around the Ghanaians, the whole continent willing them on to the infamous quarter final game in Soweto.   A sense of unity, unforced, non-tribal, celebratory.   The reason why we’d come.

My Pop Life #89 : Some Folks’ Lives Roll Easy – Paul Simon

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Some Folks’ Lives Roll Easy  –   Paul Simon

…some folks lives roll easy, some folks lives…never roll at all…

…most folks never catch their stars…

It’s a slight, unshowy track on Still Crazy After All These Years, Paul Simon’s masterpiece.  It’s a magnificent album chock-full of hits and flashy songs, the title track alone is the work of a genius, but then there’s My Little Town, 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover, Have A Good Time – for me this is the perfect LP.  Look at it this way – you’ve written the song.  You have wonderful chords, searching lyrics, you’ve done well, you’ve chosen only the creme de la creme of your work.  And then :  you arrange them.

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 I’m a sucker for a great arrangement, something with a bit of thought, a bit of TLC.   Paul Simon shares this arranging fetish with Bob Marley – rarely is a song a straight guitar strum 4×4 and drum beat with a few bvs.  No – there is a careful consideration of how to tell the story of the song musically – and this means instruments dropping out, only appearing for the turnarounds, treating pop music a little more like a classical composition.  Brian Wilson went there with Pet Sounds, Kate Bush lives there.   There is something about jazz musicians playing pop arrangements that delivers delicious music (he generalised : eg Motown) – the line-up of A-list session players on Still Crazy After All These Years is long and distinguished and includes the celebrated Steve Gadd on drums and Mike Brecker on saxophone.

This is probably the most compassionate song I know.  The concept of the piece – that some folks’ lives roll easy, while others don’t, is relatively simple, and yet not commonplace in pop at all.  There are songs which celebrate, defiantly, being working-class – Dead-End Street by The Kinks, most of The Streets output, The Clash – and there are songs celebrating or lamenting the easy life – large chunks of hip hop, Sunny Afternoon by the Kinks, disturbingly large amounts of Bryan Ferry – but there are very few songs it seems to me which put these two universes together in the same song.

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The narrator – Mr Paul Simon – contemplates the fact that “most folks never catch their stars”  – this alone is an astounding line in a pop song and the truth of it stabs you unexpectedly with its clear-eyed compassion.  Then we’re in the middle eight and the narrator suddenly becomes the self-confessed supplicant speaking directly to his “Lord” – at his place of business, despite having “no business here”.  He speaks directly to his God :

“You said if I ever got so low I was busted – you could be trusted?”

The music around this repeated middle eight is tremendously affecting. first time around a simple string section supports and leads us away from this humble prayer,  then it repeats :

here I am Lord, knocking at your place of business, and I know, I got no business here

but you said, if I ever got so low I was busted – you could be trusted…”

and this time the horns punch us back to the first verse “Some folks’ lives roll easy, some folks never roll at all, they just fall, they just fall…” but this time with a soaring three-part harmony which tears your heart open.   If you have one, naturally.

There is no chorus in this song which is unusual, but what is more unusual is the narrative that it offers.  We think we know this story, but when we hear the song, we hear it all over again on another level.  It’s pretty damn special.

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I didn’t buy solo Paul Simon until the 90s, but this song quickly became one of my wife’s favourites.   I grew up with Simon and Garfunkel, I had singles and greatest hits as a very young teen.  They were the sound of my youth.   I thought, and still think, they were totally amazing.   But I never did bother to follow up and get into Paul Simon until I was deep into my thirties.  This LP, his 4th, came out in 1975 and is perfect, as described above.  Of course there is Graceland which broke the boycott but helped make Ladysmith Black Mambazo into international stars, Here Comes Rhymin’ Simon, ah look, there’s a kind of endless tapestry of brilliant songs and LPs to be honest, right up to the present day (2011’s So Beautiful or So What), consistency applied – he never appears to write a bad song, and his taste in musicians and arrangements is impeccable.

Featured imageJenny and I went to Liverpool for the year of culture in 2008 and had an absolutely brilliant long weekend – again a subject for another post (!) but we did see Paul Simon at the new Echo Arena on the River Mersey, with his incredible band which includes South African Bakithi Kumalo (pictured right) on bass (with Simon since Graceland in 1986), and Cameroonian Vincent Nguini on guitar.   He didn’t play this song, but did sing Sound Of Silence, The Boxer, Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes, Gumboots, Boy In The Bubble, Duncan, Me & Julio Down By The Schoolyard, Mrs Robinson, Still Crazy, Slip Slidin’ Away and You Can Call Me Al.  Among others.   An amazing night.

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So, cut to : at some point in 2010 I’m basically giving up every Saturday morning, sometimes the whole day to canvas on behalf of Caroline Lucas of The Green Party in the Brighton Pavilion constituency for the 2010 election.   A Party which I’d recently joined, partly due to renewed political optimism engendered by Barack Obama‘s first election victory (white Americans voted for a black man – there is hope).  The Green Party understands that some folks lives roll easy, some don’t.  Many former Labour supporters joined the Greens, myself included,  depressed by the right turn of Blairism, and the pusillanimous surrender of the Labour Left to the City – see the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) for the NHS if you doubt my words.  So:  I’m meeting Green volunteers who’ve taken the train down from all across the UK to Brighton to support the big push, and they’re getting into my 4×4 Jeep Cherokee (converted to LPG!!) and being taken out to places like Withdean and Hollingbury.   To leaflet every household.  And Radio 3 has a show being presented by Richard Curtis, with whom I’d worked the previous year on “The Boat That Rocked” his film about Radio Caroline (yes yes there will be posts about that obviously !) and really enjoyed his humourous positivity.  He’s actually not particularly English, probably because he grew up in diplomatic surroundings in dozens of different countries.  And maybe that gives him a slightly dewy-eyed view of England.  Anyway enough Freud, he was on Radio 3 this very day in 2010.   And he was playing his six most personal favourite songs.  And one of them was this one : Some Folks’ Lives Roll Easy by Paul Simon.   It made me love him even more.   The UK public are as hard on Richard as they are on Paul McCartney – big soppy rich so-and-so they appear to mutter under their breath – we prefer snarling mean people, like us.  Well sod you all, mean people.  Richard Curtis is one of the sweetest people I know, generous, funny, loves music and is genuinely supportive.  You may not like his films, or Blackadder, or Comic Relief, but if that is the case, have you actually sat down and asked yourself what is wrong with you ?

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Compassion is not to be sneered at.  It’s what makes us grow.  The best bit of ourselves.  Let’s nurture it.

My Pop Life #48 : Photoshop Handsome – Everything Everything

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Photoshop Handsome   –   Everything Everything

My teeth dazzle like an igloo wall, I inhabit, I inhibit y’all!
Can you operate alone?
Chest pumped elegantly elephantine, southern hemisphere by Calvin Klein…

A bejewelled musical box of a song I first heard on the radio in 2009, its hyperkinetic cartoon energy, mouthfuls of words and ideas sung in choirboy falsetto, proper pop chorus and hooks, thrilling drum patterns : an extraordinary construction that made my ears sit up and beg.   Here was a band who didn’t give a shit about what everyone else sounded like, who had decided forge their own independent arrogant bloody-minded path through the pop world.…I will gain an extra life when I get the high score…you can respawn anywhere…

IFeatured image bought the LP immediately it came out a few months later in 2010 and wasn’t disappointed by my own high hopes – Man Alive is, for me the single greatest record of the 21st century so far, a record that is so breathtakingly original that to compare it with Amy Winehouse’s Back To Black – great though that is – is a pointless comparison.  The LP that comes close is Kanye West’s Yeezus for musical boldness and pointers to the future, and of course there’s been interesting electronica from Jon Hopkins and Burial, Four Tet, J. Dilla and Flying Lotus, some beautiful music from Sigur Ros, Arcade Fire, John Legend & Vampire Weekend and many more indeed, insert your favourite here, but Man Alive is head and shoulders more inventive more original and more exciting a piece of work than any of the above.  Apart from maybe Yeezus….

In early 2010 I lived in Brighton and had a comfortable, settled and engaged life.  Happily married, working regularly as an actor on TV and in films, in a great band, season-ticket holder at The Albion (my local football team), good friends nearby to have a pint of beer with, cycling across the Downs on summer’s days to stay healthy and find secret butterfly sanctuaries.  I felt connected, satisfied, but as ever, needed a challenge.   I’d joined the Green Party 18 months earlier and spent every Saturday since on Caroline Lucas‘ campaign to be elected as the first Green MP in the UK for Brighton Pavilion, the centre of the town’s three constituencies.   It was a major challenge.    It was a place I felt like putting my energy.   And the energy of my ironic LPG-converted 4-wheel drive Grand Cherokee Jeep, which carried volunteers all over Withdean, Patcham, Bevendean and Hollingbury.   People came down to Brighton from all over the UK every Saturday morning for a year.

Featured imageIt was a great collective effort which culminated in election day – I spent time outside three different polling booths, then knocked people up, getting our vote out, then once the polls closed fielding some calls as local Press Officer – one from ITN News –  and I was at home.  I said “we’re quietly confident”  – I just made it up – and that became the tag-line for the night on the TV.   We had no idea if we’d won.  I went down to the count at The Brighton Centre at around midnight, place was buzzing, I had a Press Pass and talked to all the journalists there about IF Caroline wins, who she willFeatured image talk to and for how long, then a Press Conference on the top floor, then we waited and watched.  It took forever – til dawn, but then, the count, the result, the release of tension, victory at 7am in the morning.   I ran down to meet Caroline at the door of the counting room and three of us with passes escorted her up the stairs, through the throng of media, cameras in our faces, flashbulbs popping, it was the most rock-star moment I’ve ever had frankly and it was a political victory.   Extraordinary.  Upstairs the press interviews, the TV excitement, then afterwards the Green gang on the pavement outside, the celebration and then the real work began.

The end of 2009 was also when I first visited Galway on the west coast of Ireland, filming a show called The Guards with old sparring partners Stuart Orme and Iain Glen and Irish beauty Tara Breathnach.   What a town though.  Featured image I was staying in the swish elegance of the G Hotel.   A 15-minute walk took me into the pubs, the pubs the pubs of Galway.   Are there better pubs than these?   Can it be true?   One after another they suck you in with their brightly coloured exteriors, their fiddle music and soft southern voices, their velvety pints of Guinness and piles of triangular cut sandwiches, free for drinkers.   Dear Frank O Sullivan gave me the guided tour.  More than once Galway reminded me of Brighton – the music scene is thriving, the people are laid-back and friendly, it’s artistically alive, racially and sexually mixed and international yet small and manageable.  Brighton has more pubs per square mile than anywhere in the UK and more than once I heard it said that “Galway is the graveyard of ambition, the place is full of dreamers and drinkers…”

I think it’s good to listen to the universe if possible and hear what it is saying to you.   Featured imagePerhaps I should mention too, that Brighton and Galway are places where people actually choose to live because they are great places, and The Graveyard Of Ambition is always said in Galway with an undercurrent of pride – they don’t want to be anywhere else.   Balls to ambition.    This is of course hugely tempting, but perhaps not quite yet.    I did hear the universe nattering away eventually, for here I am in New York City having decided to shake things up a bit and escape from the satisfied life for a new experience.   To seek out new life, new civilisations. To boldly go to where people are allowed to split an infinitive.   Everything Everything spoke to that part of me that is always agitating, looking for change both without and within. They still speak to me.

I was on Twitter in 2012 and being a Follower of the band I read a tweet one day which said “watching Wayne’s World 2 on the tour bus…”   Hey guys – I answered (though they weren’t following me) “you made my favourite LP of the century so far !!”

This led to a Mcflurry of DMs and a date four days later in the Waggon & Horses, Brighton, by the Dome…Featured image

where Everything Everything were due to play in The Great Escape Music Festival.  We had pints, we chatted music, TV, ideas, mutual likes and dislikes, as you do.  Then I went to see them play a set, their new LP “Arc” was just out, and is also a fantastic listen.  They were, of course, tremendous.   I’d seen them before at Concorde 2 in 2010.   They’re a fairly ridiculous band live, unfeasibly brilliant.   The 3rd LP is about to be released as I speak here in April 2015, trademark crossword puzzle falsetto art pop that forges its own eclectic inspired path I’m happy to report.  The moral of the story?     Don’t settle.   Not yet.

I have to just add me and the boys outside the pub –

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Alex (guitar), Michael (drums), Me (fanboy), Jeremy (bass), Jonathan (vocals, everything)

well c’mon it is my blog.   And that as well as all the hype I’ve heaped onto the chaps, I’ll have to add that this is perhaps the best pop video of the 21st century too….a ridiculous level of detail and fun therein, both alarming and hilarious.   Enjoy!

This has been a three-pub posting.

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

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A Salty Dog   –   Procol Harum

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

The sister show to Pet Sounds/Sgt Pepper which The Brighton Beach Boys developed was, by overwhelming public demand, a rendition of final Beatles LP Abbey Road.  We did this show three times, but the conundrum was always – what would we play in the first half?   In Year One, which I think was 2011, we played an LPs worth of tunes written by Glen Richardson and called it Pop Dreams – brilliant songs, beautifully composed and sung, a gig I sadly missed playing in due to work, but watched from the back of the church (See My PopLife #229). Glen didn’t want to repeat that exercise the following year so in 2012 we started to put together something we called “The 1969 Show”, playing songs that appeared in that glorious year alongside Abbey Road.   This led to irritating and tremendous rehearsals of Aquarius, Pinball Wizard, Wichita Lineman, Gimme Shelter, Space Oddity, Midnight Cowboy, The Boxer, My Cherie Amour, River Man, Crosstown Traffic, Blackberry Way, Something In The Air and The Liquidator/Return Of Django/Israelites.   A slideshow was produced.   It was a hit – some of the audience didn’t think it “gelled” – why should it?  Others thought it was a tremendous kaleidoscopic presentation of a great musical year.   And the following year an extra date was added to the fringe diary – the Rest of The 1969 Show where enthusiasts could hear extra selections from The Kinks, Creedence, The Archies, Mama Cass and Crosby Stills and Nash.

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

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

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

Db-5                        Csus4     C           Cm7                       Bbsus4 Bb

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

Fm/Ab                  Fm              Fm7     Db-5                       E6

Explore the ship   replace the cook      Let no one leave alive

B/F#                     F#                          B        Bmaj7          B7

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

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

A twisted path   our tortured course   And no one left alive

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

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

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

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

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Filming Dark Tide with real Great Whites off South Africa

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

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