My Pop Life #153 : Small Hours – John Martyn

Small Hours   –   John Martyn

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

The London School Of Economics, Houghton St WC2

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

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

Fat Freddy and his cat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 :