My Pop Life #230 : That’s The Way Love Goes – Merle Haggard

LicheinsteinintheskywithDiamonds

That’s The Way Love Goes – Merle Haggard

I’ve been throwing horseshoes over my left shoulder
I’ve spent most all my life searching for that four-leafed clover
Yet you ran with me chasing my rainbows
Honey, I love you too and that’s the way love goes

*

My wife tells me I was born under a lucky star.  Because I met her, I assume is the backstory to that fantasy?  Well, yes, but there’s more.  I literally was born under Balthazar, a star in Gemini near the constellation of Orion. Does this have meaning?  What is luck anyway?

“The more I practice the luckier I get” is a quote attributed to golfer Arnold Palmer who also gave his name to a non-alcoholic drink of iced tea & lemonade combined.

Back in schooldays a few of us liked to study the geegees form in the Daily Mirror.  What are geegees?  They’re horses bred for racing.  I cannot tell you why they are called GGs.  Gee up horsey!   Anyway there are horse races pretty much every day in Britain and Ireland, either flat racing or over the jumps. I probably got this habit from Pete Smurthwaite, whose family I lived with twice due to my dysfunctional family situation which repeated itself on an almost continual basis from the age of seven til right now.  I have discussed this before in these pages, but the key entry for Pete and his family involved Jimi Hendrix in My Pop Life #84 All Along The Watchtower.   We also did other stuff – played bridge for example as a pair, played football, got stoned, analysed the politics of the day.  The horse racing was another challenge, and we had a system.  All gamblers have a system.  In other words, no gambler really relies on luck, perhaps because, like Arnold Palmer, they don’t really believe in it.

 

external-content.duckduckgo-1

The chairman of my beloved Seagulls, aka Brighton & Hove Albion has a family that has been with the club since the 1970s – been on the board of the club I mean.  Tony Bloom made his fortune as a professional gambler – poker mainly as a player, then he was in at the birth of online gambling.  I’ve never met Tony but I have been told, indeed it is an open secret, that his system is all based on numbers and probabilities.  I cannot reveal his poker system because I don’t know it, but I do know that he doesn’t sign a new player for the football team, spending his own money, without studying the form, the figures, the numbers.  Albion fans could argue that this has failed as often as it has succeeded – for every Trossard there’s an Andone, for every Maupay a Locadia.  But I have a short memory as far as football is concerned.  My brain doesn’t have room for previous football matches in it.  So I live totally in the present with the Albion.

I can’t remember exactly what our system was for the horses but it relied on the figures and numbers that the Daily Mirror supplied of that horse’s form – where had it finished in the last ten races? Was it ever a beaten favourite? Who was the jockey? Does it perform in the rain?  Points were awarded.  Bets were laid.  I can only imagine that betting shops in East Sussex weren’t too bothered about schoolkids gambling.  I know Phil Wheatley – who famously walked out of a French lesson announcing that he was going for a shit – looked older than us and would often be the layer of bets.  But not always.  I can remember the betting shop I frequented in Hailsham at that time – I was about 15-16.  They took my money.

external-content.duckduckgo

Traditionally, bookies or betting shops are situated near to scuzzy pubs & frequented by hollow-eyed alcoholics

And yes, I was lucky.  I won.  Not every bet.  But when I checked my weekly outgoings & incomings, winnings and losings, I was up.

This scared me.  I was dabbling really, messing about.  I felt that a lifetime of gambling would be a spiral down (despite what I now know about Tony Bloom I still feel a little bit Presbyterian about it).  So I stopped.  Just like that.  I had other things to think about – music, girls, football.  But it is a little like feeling the inner voice and realising that you are a small step from addiction.  And that wouldn’t be lucky, would it?   Jenny’s parents like to gamble, and she grew up with horse-racing too.  She has also been tempted by the habit and applied massive amounts of self-control (which she has a Phd in) to walk away.

external-content.duckduckgo-7

The paddock is on the right, the racetrack far left. In the distance is the sea

I went to the dogs in Hove one night for Mark Williams’ birthday (?), and then the races on Brighton Downs, just a short walk from our house in Kemptown.  We went to the paddock before the first race and watched the horses walk around in a slow circle.  I remembered the words of Trevor Cooper, an actor who had been to Edinburgh Festival with me twice in the early 80s, my formative years, himself a student of horse form :  “Bet on the horse that takes a shit.  It means he won’t stop for one on the way round.”

We were with Rula Lenska that day and it was Ladies Day AND Amanda Blanch‘s birthday., Mandy and Lucy were down.   Fizz fizz pop.  I can’t remember winning anything at all.  Maybe I wasn’t even there.  Didn’t matter.

The one time Jenny and I flirted most seriously with Being Lucky Punk was our First Visit To Las Vegas Together.  We’d moved to Los Angeles after Alien 3 and settled in West Hollywood, King’s Road near the Beverly Center.  Of course Las Vegas was a mere four hours by car – but at the time that seemed to us a long drive .  Across the desert in the white Lincoln Continental to The Luxor Hotel, later immortalised in Frank Ocean‘s song Pyramids.  On the strip.

IMG_4116

Any excuse to post a photograph of my Lincoln Continental 

People don’t go to Las Vegas to visit the zoo.  There are shows, of course, there are shows I wish I’d seen, of course… namely Elvis Presley in 1968, or 1970, or 1971.  And Count Basie with Frank Sinatra in 1966.

People go to Vegas to gamble.  I remember vividly my first visit to that glittering city of sin in the desert, in 1976 when I was a youth of 19 in my gap year.  I’ll write about that on another occasion, but that trip would be filed under LUCKY in the columns of my life, since I could have died that weekend.

external-content.duckduckgo-4

Luxor Hotel and Casino on the Strip, Las Vegas

So Jenny and I parked up, checked in and had some food downstairs.  Then, couldn’t delay any longer, time to gamble.  We’d discussed it over dinner. We had a system.  I shall reveal it to you now because what the hell.  First we would only play roulette. Second we would only have one bet per table and move on.  Third, we would always bet fifteen dollars divided into three $5 bets.  Cheap you say? It adds up is all.

external-content.duckduckgo

And 4th – these $5 bets would always be exactly the same – on the line between 9 & 12, 17 & 18, and 33 & 36. Payout is 17 to 1.

Most hotels had the same kind of chips as I recall which meant that you could move from casino to casino without constantly going to a cashier.  The Luxor Casino Cashier took some cash and handed us chips, small plastic counters, worth absolutely nothing outside this environment.  We sighed and dived in.  The first place we gambled was the Luxor casino.  One bet per table, as described above.  There were six tables.  We got lucky.  On the third table the little white ball span into the number 33, and since we had half of five dollars on that number we got 17 times five.  Is it $85?  And then on the final table in Luxor we landed on number 9.  Another $85, which meant we were eighty dollars UP on the first casino.   It was a good start and we left and walked a short way down the road into the warm night and the next place.

external-content.duckduckgo-6

The Excalibur.  There were more than six tables here, and we were once again successful twice, although I should add that we did get offered some free cocktails and yes, we drank them. We walked down to the MGM.  The Waldorf AstoriaPark MGM. The Flamingo. Caesar’s Palace.  And we’d been lucky.  Or else it was a good system.  By now we were over 3000 dollars UP on the night and it was just after 10pm.  We were light-headed and happy, gliding through the warm evening air loaded down with cash and chips.  Where next?  Far too early to go to bed….

Las Vegas, Nevada, USA, The Strip

Winning is, in the end, a Mirage (unless you go home)

We walked past the Pirates Of The Caribbean exhibit and found ourselves at The Mirage Casino.  We went in.  We lost at the first table and the second.  On the third we made a fatal error and changed the system.  We stayed on that third table and played two more rounds.  I cannot remember much after that.  We were drunk.  At least I was.  Somehow it all went weird. We carried on.  It wasn’t shiny any more.  It was grubby and sordid.  It stopped glittering and winking and we could see the dirt and the dust.   Some croupiers had a look of pity in their eyes as we gambled that $3000 away.  Methodically.  It slipped rather miserably through our fingers.  We tried other numbers.  Red. Odd.  What about 27?  We couldn’t go home until it was all gone.  That happened around 1am.   Tails between our legs, we took a taxi back, stunned, trying to understand what had happened.  Jenny wanted to go downstairs and carry on, win back everything we had lost.  She found a credit card.  They take credit cards in Las Vegas funnily enough.  She was keen.  I didn’t think it was such a good idea.

IMG_E4118

Roger Griffith & Jo Melville in our living room in King’s Road, W. Hollywood

About a year later we travelled to Las Vegas again to see our friends Jo and Roger who were touring the USA in a play.  To my shame I cannot remember the play. We must have gambled a bit on that trip too, then gone upstairs.  In the middle of the night I woke up with a strange feeling, turned over and Jenny was gone. I knew where she was.  It was 3.30am as I pulled my jeans on and a pair of shoes and went along to the lift.  In the casino I saw Jenny’s back standing at a roulette table.  I approached her gently as she laid some chips on the green baize. The big wheel span & the little white ball went against the spin then jumped and bobbled into number 24.  The chips were scraped in by the croupier.  Jenny felt me and turned around.  “What the hell are you doing?” I said.  “Come on”.  Roger had been there with her and already slunk back upstairs, so she accepted defeat and came back to the room.  I took the room key card off her and placed it under my pillow.  “You are gambling away our mortgage” I said.  And went to sleep.

We haven’t gambled since then really.  Are we lucky though? I feel lucky every day to be honest, even when I’m depressed.  I can’t look at the world and feel any other way.  I am lucky, lucky star or no.  I land on my feet.  It’s all a matter of perspective really isn’t it.  Choice.  Half-full or half-empty.  Grateful or bitter.  Richard E Grant said to me about ten years ago when he was doing a show in the West End “I don’t want to grow old in bitterness” which was a quote he’d got from Roddy MacDowall – the original chimp in Planet of the Apes.  I think its a key idea.  To smell the roses a little more as you grow older.  To stop comparing yourself to others, stop regretting the past, the decisions, the things that you could have changed.  It is what it is.  You have to forgive yourself for being you in the end.

None of this would be possible without my boo.  I’ve written about her a whole lot, but it’s the truth.  She ran with me, chasing my rainbows, and now I’m running with her, chasing hers.  That’s the way love goes.

 

 

The song was written by Lefty Frizzell and first came out in 1971.  For me it is inextricably tied to the moment when I embraced country music in the late 80s/early 90s under the guidance of Ken Cranham.  Saw some great gigs and bought some incredible music. Went to Nashville in 1988 (see My Pop Life #83 Country Boy) and remembered I’d bought cowboy boots when I was 18 in Santa Fe.  The guy in the shop said I should buy a pair half a size too small and they’d expand into my footshape.  They did that, then split along the sole.  Bought a few more pairs since that day though.  I never cared much about looking cool.  Not true of course, but I always walked the line of derision and mockery.  Ponced around the LSE in 1976 like a cowboy until punk’s sulphate urgency gripped me.  But I’ve always loved country music and style, and simultaneously felt I knew nothing about it.  Ken Burns Country doc fixed that.

Merle Haggard was in San Quentin when according to Legend he saw Johnny Cash playing to the prisoners and it turned his life around.  From Bakersfield, California he became a huge country star who championed the working man and whose songs are like the man himself  – unsentimental perhaps, but truthful and honest. Proper country music.  I bought this song as a 45 rpm single in Ernest Tubb’s Record Store in Nashville in 1988.  It has a warmth and generosity to the production, and an incredible quality to the vocal that really moves me.  And the guitar solo is pretty good too.   Merle has written and sung a ton of great songs.  This is my favourite.

My Pop Life #196 : Pullin’ Back The Reins – k.d. lang

Pullin’ Back The Reins – k.d. lang

Out of nowhere this gust of wind 
brushed my hair and kissed my skin 
i aimed to hold a bridled pace 
when with love itself i came face to face

She was our queen in the late 80s when we first met – and on one memorable night in Kentish Town she appeared to be made of golden stardust, towering over the venue, the music, the songs and our lives like a goddess.

Like the young soul I am I became curious & interested in country music around the time that the New Musical Express gave away a free C90 cassette taped to the front cover of its weekly paper perhaps the spring of 1988 – bright yellow I recall, with an exciting playlist from artists I have loved ever since : Nanci Griffith, Randy Travis, Patti Loveless, The Judds, Dwight Yoakum, Lyle Lovett and k.d. lang.   I was rehearsing a weird new drama for the BBC called The Black & Blue Lamp and I’d met Kenneth Cranham (see My Pop Life #177 and My Pop Life #46) which in retrospect was a seriously influential moment in my musical development;  indeed it was a portal.  Ken asked me what I was listening to and we shared and enthused, and two weeks later we were standing with beers in The Half-Moon off Putney Bridge, a wonderfully intimate music venue just south of the river Thames where devotees of this ‘New Country’ were gathered to see Lyle Lovett, supported tonight by k.d. lang & the Reclines.  The country music these bands & the others played was stripped down of orchestration & sweeteners and was a return to traditional  sawdust shit-kickin’ down-home country ‘n’ western music – not that I knew the difference then.  All I knew was Glen Campbell (Galveston), Johnny Cash (A Boy Named Sue, Ring of Fire) and Emmylou Harris & Gram Parsons (Love Hurts, Ooh Las Vegas).   Oh and the New Riders of The Purple Sage.  Hippie country.  Nashville is capital of country music but there were & still are many ways to write and perform a country hit, from Willie Nelson to Taylor Swift.

When k.d. lang came onstage she was a boyish scruff with a hot band, fiddle, pedal-steel and all, but when she opened her mouth to sing – my god – the hairs on the back of my neck literally prickled.  Ken turned around to look at me – yes, I nodded, she’s really good.   I particularly remember her rendition of Three Cigarettes (In An Ashtray) that night, a song from Patsy Cline‘s self-titled first LP in 1957, and a rendition that k.d. performed with compelling languid drama and total authority – we were all sat in the palm of her hand listening to this extraordinary instrument – her voice – swooping & sighing with perfection.  Lyle Lovett the headliner didn’t stand a chance after that frankly, although he was entertaining in a wry twinkly way, the night had already been stolen.

Completely converted, I bought the first LP Angel With a Lariat which was basically what I’d just seen live, discovered that the lady was from Calgary on the Canadian prairies and was about to release an LP of classic country songs produced by Nashville royalty Owen Bradley,  producer of most of Patsy Cline‘s great songs, and many others : Brenda Lee, Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty, Buddy Holly and Gene Vincent among them.  k.d. had tempted him out of retirement and it felt like stamp of approval from the conservative establishment, and a tip of the hat from k.d. herself to the classic ‘countrypolitan’ sound of the late 50s/early 60s, invented by Bradley himself where the hoedown fiddles & honky tonk of basic country were replaced by sweet string pads and choice piano licks. Country went mainstream.

k.d. lang & Owen Bradley, 1988

The resulting LP Shadowland, released later in 1988 was sleek, polished, tasteful and entirely superior music, filled with licks from the great session players of Nashville, and an amazing collaboration.  Surprisingly,  when she put together her own country compilation album Reintarnation in 2006 k.d. lang would only include one song from Shadowland – Don’t Let The Stars Get In Your Eyes.  Who can say why she had gone off this musical high point ?

The following year though was almost all self-penned songs (with her collaborator Ben Mink from the Reclines) – a collection called Absolute Torch and Twang (1989) which has been a favourite of both Jenny and I ever since.  Often camp country tunes performed with gusto and warble, lovely instrumentation, really good songs.  Luck In Your Eyes got a grammy nod I think but my favourite is this one : Pullin’ Back The Reins, a lovely ballad about reticence & control & dignity, not letting the horse of love gallop madly across the prairie with its mane on fire.  Playing the long game, which we were already doing only a year and a bit into the relationship.

She played the song at The Town & Country Club in Kentish Town in May 1990 along with the rest of the album and other favourites including a few knockouts from Shadowland.  It was a shit-kicking country gig, but with the voice of an angel.  She came out like Elvis Presley, with a raunchy lick of hair and a swagger in her hips, a curl of the lip and a smile in her eyebrows.   She was simply dynamite that night.  We moved closer.  She took the guitar off and sang torch style, the extraordinary voice filling the space.  You could hear a pin drop between notes, we were that spellbound.  The rapture in the room was almost too much to bear and Jenny near-fainted, moving back and then actually outside into the street.  I think she had been converted to the infinite delights of Sappho and she looked at me as I had a quick puff of something while she fanned herself back to earth.  We were both shining with devotion.  Wow.  One of the greatest gigs in my museum of recollections.  Outstanding.

Two years later we were married, living in Los Angeles and there was Ingenue on the new CD player regularly, lush, airbrushed harmonies, full of Constant Craving and Miss Chatelaine and a strong move away from country into exquisite pop music.  k.d. lang hasn’t dropped a beat since then to my ears – guaranteed quality with every song she sings – including the LP with Tony Bennett and the Canadian covers record ‘49th Parallel‘ which has songs by Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Ron Sexsmith (but not Rufus Wainwright !?!).   Funny how you lose track of some artists – it was only today that I discovered the 1995 album called All You Can Eat so I bought it and listened.  Magnificent, of course.

The Runyon Canyon hike

So fast-forward to 2009/10 and I’m living with Eamonn up in the hills above the Hollywood Bowl, just off Mulholland Drive.  I started getting fit – the perennial obsession – and without wanting to haunt some sweaty bollocks gymnasium or sit on a static bicycle in an surging class of lycra, or join E in some boxing pain, I decided to walk Runyon Canyon every morning.  Whichever way round I went it was downhill all the way down to Fairfax and uphill all the way back to Mulholland and it is a great workout in the sun.  Wildlife too – hawks, eagles, snakes, chipmunks, all kinds of stuff.  Popular with Hollywood types, some of whom run it, while others just walk the dog or gossip with their mates.  There are various routes and one which ends up going around the back of the canyon into a sweet little path with bushes & butterflies & birds, and naturally I often gravitated to that option.

This was where k.d. lang, somewhat larger than in 1990, would sometimes be walking her dog and talking on the cellphone.  It was cool to share a deserted piece of Canyon with her and although I so so wanted to say hi to her, to talk to her about that flash of lightning in our lives, to thank her for the Half Moon Putney, and all the records,  she always turned gently away perhaps to protect herself against intrusion and so I always honoured that choice and let her be.

What a Queen !

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

Don’t You Take It Too Bad   –   Guy Clark

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

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

Guy Clark in 1971

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

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

North Acton BBC rehearsal rooms – mid 80s

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

Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt

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

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

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

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

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

Townes Van Zandt and friends, 1970s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Pop Life #46 : Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos) – Dolly Parton

Featured image

Deportee  (Plane Wreck At Los Gatos)   –   Dolly Parton

The airplane caught fire over los gatos canyon
A fireball of lightning that shook all our hills
Who are these dear friends all scattered like dry leaves?
The radio said they were just deportees

A song that was passed to me by fellow actor Kenneth Cranham when we were working together on the 1st of three shows we would make together in the space of two years in the late 80s.  He’d caught me listening to a cassette which came free with the NME that week containing what it called “New Country” – k.d. lang, Lyle Lovett, Dwight Yoakum, Nanci Griffith.   Ken is a huge country fan, in fact he’s a huge music fan and we exchanged tapes for a while, although I had to work hard to find a song that he didn’t already know about (I eventually did ; Oleta Adams version of Everything Must ChangeMy Pop Life #20).  But mainly it was one-way traffic from the older guy to the younger fella – Elvis tapes, country, and more recently a songwriter’s selection from Harold Arlen and Hoagy Carmichael – brilliant).

Featured image

Kenneth Cranham

The first C90 Ken gave me was called simply “Country”.  I was living in Archway Road with my girlfriend Rita Wolf at that point in late 1987.  I’d just shot “The Black & Blue Lamp” at the BBC, a satirical and savage lampoon of TV policemen which took particular aim at Dixon of Dock Green and was written by the slightly touched and rather brilliant Arthur Ellis, who was to crop up again later in my career.  Karl Johnson and Kenneth Cranham took me up to the BBC Canteen at North Acton where we bumped into Patrick Malahide, of their generation, a legend to me for his appearances in Minder as DS Chisholm.  “Hello Patrick” said Ken, “what are you doing here?”  Patrick looked morose : “Oh, just some television” he said without enthusiasm.  It was an early taste of cynicism for me, still young and fresh, in in my first decade in the business, still thrilled to be in the BBC Canteen and actually acting for a living.

Featured image

Deportee was written by Woody Guthrie in 1948 detailing the true story of a plane crash in Los Gatos Canyon, Fresno County California, which resulted in the deaths of 32 people, 28 of whom were Mexican migrant workers being taken back to Mexico.  The music was scored some ten years later by Martin Hoffman.  The song is a lament for the shoddy racist treatment of the foreigners, the deportees treated as outlaws and thieves by the American Press and public, named in the song as Juan, Rosalita, Jesus and Maria.

Featured image

Dolly Parton was born into a large family in Tennessee whom she describes as ‘dirt poor’, moved to Nashville the day after she graduated aged 18 and rose to become the most-decorated female country singer of all time.  She has always presented a healthy sense of self-parody (eg 2008 LP Backwoods Barbie) alongside her own songwriting talent.

Featured image

Elvis Presley wanted to sing her song “I Will Always Love You” but insisted on half of the publishing, as he (and manager Tom Parker) did with every song he covered.   Dolly refused and some years later Whitney Houston famously took the song to the top of the charts and into the film “The Bodyguard”.    Dolly Parton’s best selling pop-country single was, in fact, “9 to 5” which she wrote, followed by 1983’s duet with Kenny RogersIslands In The Stream” which was written by The Bee Gees.    The fact that she was at the peak of her popularity when she recorded “Deportee” in 1980 is a tribute to her humanity and her well-documented philanthropical side.   It appears on the soundtrack LP for the film ‘9 To 5′ which she also starred in with Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda, and also on Dolly’s 1981 LP “9 to 5 and Odd Jobs“.

Featured imageFeatured image

Although the song has been covered by many artists, including Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Christy Moore and Bruce Springsteen, this is my favourite version – the haunting piano phrases, the emotional singing from Dolly herself, and the production, all make this a classic protest song, a classic country song,  quite simply a classic song.

Featured image

I’ll dedicate the song today to all those poor souls drowned in the Mediterranean Sea after attempting the crossing from North Africa to Italy.   Dangerous overcrowded boats run by people-traffickers take hundreds of people every single day, and thousands have drowned.    The news reports refer to them as refugees.  Migrants.  Child migrants.  Or, as I prefer to call them, people.

My Pop Life #6 : She Is His Only Need – Wynonna Judd

Featured image

She Is His Only Need  – Wynonna Judd

…he’d heard about something she wanted…

Late 80s, somewhere in Acton rehearsal rooms, fellow actor Kenneth Cranham gives me a C90 cassette he’d made up of his favourite country songs.  He’d caught me listening to Dwight Yoakum and Lyle Lovett on an NME “New Country” giveaway cassette and asked if I knew Nanci Griffith ? Patti Loveless? The Judds ?  This was the 3rd job I’d done with Ken in a short space of time, and we’d become a gang, and subsequently he’d turned me onto so much great music, mainly country. He is an addictive aficionado like me.  I loved The Judds on first listen.  A mother and daughter team, strong clean harmonies on beautiful songs like Drops Of Water or Why Not Me ?  But this is the daughter Wynonna going solo in 1992 – the year we got married – with a Dave Loggins song.

images.duckduckgo-4

Her mother Naomi had been diagnosed with Hepatitus C, and retired.  It’s a special song, a typical country vignette of a two lives intertwined in two verses and a chorus – a simple story of love and family.  It touches me deeply : there’s a moment in the second verse which goes from her first pregnancy to old age in a few graceful lines – brilliant lyrics can do this :

Bonnie worked until she couldn’t tie her apron
Then stayed at home and had the first of two children
And my, how the time did fly
The babies grew up and moved away
Left ’em sitting on the front porch rocking
And Billy watching Bonnie’s hair turn gray

but really you have to hear the melody to get the emotional heft of those few lines.  The chorus is the thing though :

He’d heard about something she wanted – and it just had to be found.

This has become a catchphrase for Jenny and I, we use it as a joke, as a tactic, as a sincere explanation. It’s woven into our relationship just like this song.  Sometimes the little things are the things.  It’s a song about love.