My Pop Life #194 : Shhh/Peaceful – Miles Davis

Shhh/Peaceful – Miles Davis

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Probably late 1977, or early 1978.  Second year of my Law Degree at LSE, having spent the summer at the Edinburgh Festival with the National Student Theatre Company and realised I was at the wrong college, studying the wrong subject.   A summer recorded faithfully I think in My Pop Life #140.  Nick Broadhurst was the only other LSE student in that summer group, in the year above me at college;  a world-weary air of cultured ennui, smoking Hamlet mini-cigars, wearing real shirts, real shoes, a wry smile playing around his mouth, an authoritative disdain for other people’s opinions, stupidity and bad art.  I both liked him and thought him a little arrogant, although I was exactly the same I think.   He’s an opera director now.  We’ve lost touch.  I tried a couple of times recently but he’s scorching his earth.  Once again.

My 2nd year at LSE looking out at Fitzroy St aged 20

photograph by flatmate Norman Wilson aged 20

A Manchester lad without the accent, Nick introduced me to Miles Davis when I was still a teenager.  I was glittering with punk spikes by then, eye-make-up and nail varnish, but that was just a pose, in reality I didn’t know who I was.  A pop tart.  Jack of all, master of a half.  I’ve still got no idea really.  But getting stoned of an evening was a serious business in those days and the soundtrack was key.  The LP in question was called In A Silent Way, the sleeve was perfect for rolling joints on and it was Nick’s LP of choice, the first selection.  The ultimate cool sound for coming up.  You can talk across the music without feeling that you’re missing anything.  You can play the same side of the album twice or three times in a row without feeling any damage.  It’s a groove, only limited by the length of the LP side – there’s a song on side A : Shhhh/Peaceful, and another one on side B : In A Silent Way/It’s About That Time.  Which makes it sound like 4 songs.  They’ve blended into two, trust me.  The Wiki page says there’s three on each side but Whatever yeah.  It’s continuous ambient sound.  Although the record is undeniably cool it has an urgent, insistent vibe which the trumpet notes of Miles Davis puncture with their sweet sharp tones.  It’s a very thrilling thing.  I’m sure people who know about jazz have written at length about this album, for me it triggers a time and a place, and a person.

So we were back at LSE doing our academic degrees.  We decided to do a play to keep up morale (all the other students of that Edinburgh summer had gone back to RADA, Bristol Old Vic and Drama Centre etc) and we settled on Waiting For Godot by Samuel Beckett.   We read it aloud once with Christian Hodiege, an economics student who would play Estragon, and a woman called Shelley ? I think who played the slave Lucky.  Pozzo was played by an American student whose name has evaporated into the mists of the late 1970s, and I was Vladimir.   It was funny, mysterious, simple and yet ambiguous.  And possibly obvious too, although I think we missed that.  The next stage was a two-week series of improvisations based on the material facts of Godot – two men waiting by a tree for Godot, who never appears.  Only Pozzo and his slave Lucky appear. Then leave.  Essentially nothing happens.  Our improvisations were hopelessly useless and brought us no nearer to this play or how to approach it.  I can say with authority now that improvisation isn’t a way in to Beckett.  Hahaha.

With some relief we returned to the text and stood it on it’s feet immediately.  The intricate stage directions concerning the bowler hats gave us a mighty clue to the silent comedy of existential horror which the play examines.  Or, Laurel & Hardy.

We staged the show in the Old Theatre at LSE – probably 3 performances in all, and it was generally felt to be a success.  We did a version of the play.  All the actors had whiteface and I have pictures of it somewhere, but not here and not now.

The following term we decided to stage another play, this time John Guare’s, absurd off-broadway hit Muzeeka written in 1968.  I cannot remember any of the rest of the cast, but I think Christian and Shelley were both present once more.  I played the lead chap who at one point visits a prostitute and pays for a ‘Chinese Basket Job’.  This involved me climbing onto the top deck of a bunk bed while a spinning basket (rather like an upturned chinese conical hat with a hole in it) containing a semi-naked woman is lowered from the ceiling onto my thrusting sexual organs – thankfully not exposed.  On the first night, the rope snapped and the Chinese Basket containing Shelley dropped down onto me, thankfully missing my gonads by millimetres but causing extreme mirth and merriment in the audience and utter humiliation for myself.  I decided in that horrible second to manfully act on and make impotent pumping movements into this blasted basket containing my poor fellow actress. Yes, I’m the Great Pretender.

Thankfully the rest of the show was more acceptable, and my old schoolfriend and drummer Patrick Freyne said he particularly enjoyed the bit when I said I leaped onto the 3rd rail to see what electricity tastes like.  I think the simple fact that my public humiliation in front of peers students and academics did not put me off acting for life is a testament to my newly-awoken vocation.   We all drank and smoked that night – in my memory Christian (who was from Freiburg in der schwarzwald) was a great lover of jazz, and he and Nick both enjoyed Miles Davis.

I had many other adventures at the LSE of course, such as detailed in My Pop Life #113  when the Sex Pistols were the only game in town; or the fun I had down on the Thames with the late great Viv Stanshall before he played the Old Theatre (is it Rococo? in My Pop Life #77 ) with others still to come no doubt.   If I can remember them.  Such a long time ago.  Before my time really.

Nick left LSE the summer of 1978, and I had one year remaining, the year when traditionally the slacker student puts some effort into their studies to grapple back those lost years and get themselves a decent degree.   I directed a play and took part in an Occupation of the Registry over School Fees.   “We saw you in there Ralph Brown” said the Registrar after the whole event was over – we’d slept in the Registry for days at a time and brought the administration of the college to a complete standstill.   Can’t remember the outcome at all.  However : sticking with absurd one-act plays from New York I’d selected Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story, set on a bench in Central Park and cast Christian as the tormented lead character Jerry.  He was brilliant, but then did his finals and left LSE to become an economist back in Germany.  I’ll always remember that strange sense of helplessness on the first night, my job as director done, the cast taking over and delivering the show, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it.  It’s completely organic.  Although the director is lauded in the theatre, they all feel the same on first night.   There are notes sessions of course in the days that follow but they can’t be too dramatic or revolutionary.  The show is now set.  The grip has to be relinquished.  Of course there are always exceptions to this rule as I discovered when I played Macbeth in Liverpool (see My Pop Life#108).

Nick was very supportive of my directing endeavours and came to see The Zoo Story.  He also came to see another production that I directed with Jenny my wife back in 1990 in Ladbroke Grove – another NY play called Danny & The Deep Blue Sea.  I’m wondering if that’s the last time I saw him.

Nick Broadhurst

Our shared ambition back at college was to leave the London School Of Economics behind, but only after completion of our respective degrees, and it was a solid glue to base our friendship on.  I was going out with Mumtaz, born in Aden (now Yemen) of Pakistani heritage, schooled in Kashmir and the LSE.  Nick was courting Kalsang, born in Tibet but exiled when a young girl to Dharamsala, India, then taken to boarding school in England and thence to the LSE.

Mumtaz Keshani around 1980-81

They would visit us under the eaves in Taj’s loft space in Finsbury Park and watch Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe battle it out for Wimbledon, Taj and I supporting McEnroe and Nick & Kalsang supporting Borg.  Things got quite frayed I recall the year that McEnroe won.   Taj would cook keema peas with naan bread, basmati rice & daal with aloo gobi, yoghurt and salad.  We would get stoned.  Nick would smoke his blasted Hamlet cigarillos and we’d be on Silk Cut or Benson & Hedges.  Kalsang never smoked.  We’d listen to Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Earth Wind & Fire and The Clash.  We’d laugh.  We’d argue.  Nick liked to argue.  So did I.  He was extremely rude once talking about Kalsang.  Horrible, really humiliating. He defended it too.  So weird.  They got married soon after that in Hackney and bought a house, had two children.  Mumtaz and I lasted another few years then I left her at the age of 29 and moved out to a council flat in Bow (via my friend Simon’s).

Kalsang and Nick definitely stayed in touch with Mumtaz, and I recall less so with me, but perhaps just a judgemental word or two left that impression, but in any event, Nick started a small opera company doing perfectly-formed studio productions with a string quartet and actors who could sing.  It was called Music Theatre London and Nick asked me to be on the board which I was happy to do.  For another post I suspect.

I hope he’s OK.  Mumtaz still sees Kalsang now and again.  The kids are all grown up.  Probably got kids themselves.  Maybe they’ve already discovered Miles Davis.

In A Silent Way was recorded in one session by producer Teo Macero on February 18th 1969.  In addition to Miles’ usual band of the previous few years – namely Tony Williams on drums, Wayne Shorter on soprano saxophone, Herbie Hancock on piano (Chick Corea also contributes) and Dave Holland on bass (who’d replaced Ron Carter the previous year) – the young John McLaughlin is on electric guitar who’d flown in from England the previous day, and Joe Zawinul appears on electric organ.

Tony Williams

Dave Holland

Wayne Shorter

Miles Davis & Herbie Hancock

Tony Williams went on to form his own band and the remainder stayed to record Bitches Brew in 1970, with the addition of many more players.

The music they played that night sounds like early electro-ambient groove, way way ahead of its time – neither rock nor jazz, moving towards fusion like his previous albums but not quite there yet.  Bitches Brew was just around the corner, but In A Silent Way is quieter, and for me at least, more affecting.

 

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