Don’t Make Me Wait Too Long – Roberta Flack
First you’re here, then you’re gone,
It’s that same old heartbreak story;
Thought that you’d be in my life
For more than just one night.
But you say you got to leave,
It destroys me, boy, it hurts me;
Tell me what did I do wrong
For you to leave me all alone?
1981 was a very strange year for me. I have virtually no clear memories of it, only strange images and moments, meetings, fleeting whispers. I was 24 and still hadn’t “become an actor”. I had a degree in Law from the London School of Economics. Whoopee. I was living in Finsbury Park with my girlfriend Mumtaz, whom I’d left in spring 1980 to take a year off on the Gringo Trail with my brother Paul through Latin America, then been forced to come home prematurely five months later after contracting Hepatitus B, jaundiced and weak. Mumtaz and I had reunited but I was scratchy. Any discussions we had about the relationship were along the lines of “are you staying or going?” and then debate was shut down. I was working in an office above the ICA in The Mall for a group called SIAD.
More about that later. Finally in the spring of ’81, Paul had returned from New York City where he’d been living with Jim (whom he had met in San Cristóbal Las Casas in Mexico) and needed a place to live in London. After making a few enquiries at a squatting collective in Hornsey, we identified an empty ground floor flat in a council block called McCall House on Tufnell Park Road, just down from the old Holloway Odeon and broke in. Changed the lock. Cut another set of keys. Soon after this I left Mumtaz for the second time, found a mattress from somewhere and moved in with Paul.
We knew other squatters – The Huntley St squat down in Tottenham Court Road where Colin and Mary lived and where we’d lifted a small but incredibly heavy piano up six flights of stairs one day. Never again! But we knew the squatting drill. And London at this point felt a little like a battleground. Thatcher was in power. Ghost Train by The Specials was waiting in the wings, as were the Brixton Riots – and Toxteth, Wood Green and other areas. It was nervy, aggressive and rough. Normal enough, but heavy.
There must have been running water and electricity. We made rudimentary curtains in a hippie punk style and set up a small record player. Photos from Mexico, Sussex and London were blue-tacked to the wall above the fireplace, which didn’t have a fire. We added to these pictures on a daily basis. Then a young gay guy from Mexico turned up and he stayed there for a while, kind of uninvited. Maybe I moved out for a bit. Really can’t remember. Then a Kiwi girl Paul had met in Mexico called Eppy turned up and stayed too. How did she find us? No mobile phones or internet in those days. Almost beyond understanding. Eppy then invited some fucking heroin dealer round who boasted of his connections with Clappo – Eric Clapton – and the following day while we were out the flat was broken into and cleaned out. Eppy was told to fuck off. Soon after that we both fucked off too – Paul to a friends and me, tail between my legs for a second time, back to Mumtaz. Before we left though, two main memories surface from those strange days in that flat…
The Scala Cinema, Tottenham St W1, 1979-81
First – speed. Amphetamine sulphate. I’d been dealing it and taking it before Mexico andhad come close to becoming hooked. It does bad things to your teeth, not to mention your brains, but the buzz was excellent. There was clearly still some knocking around and one bleak Sunday we swallowed a couple of blues each and walked down to The Scala Cinema in Tottenham St W1, where I worked on Saturday nights at the famous all-nighter (see My Pop Life 23). Lee Drysdale, who used to work there with me, still remembers me coming back from Mexico (once I was out of hospital) and turning up at the Scala orange-skinned and yellow-eyed with Hepatitus B. It’s not infectious once you go orange, but I guess I looked pretty alarming. No more so than the usual punters probably.
So I must have worked there on the Saturday night, all night, noticed there was a film on Sunday night I wanted to see, crawled home at dawn, slept, got up, popped some blues and walked down Camden Road to Fitzrovia with Paul. The film was Tarkovsky‘s sci-fi epic Solaris which had come out in 1972 and which I’d managed to miss at every opportunity. It’s a stunning strange hypnotic empty film, and coming down from amphetamines, in-un-endingly desolate and grim. Brilliant, beautiful but, well, apt somehow. Soon after this The Scala moved to King’s Cross, Steve Woolley started Palace Pictures (with whom I would do a few films later) and I didn’t move over to Kings Cross with it. I started another chapter. Acting.
My second memory of the squat though is one of the greatest LPs ever made. It was one of Paul’s and we played it a lot while living there. Roberta Flack Featuring Donny Hathaway is a short, 35-minute, seven song masterpiece of soul disco released in late 1979. Originally planned as a second duets LP between the two friends and singers, Donny Hathaway only sings on two of the tracks “Back Together Again“and “You Are My Heaven“. Roberta finished the album on her own after Donny ‘apparently’ jumped out of his apartment window on 15th St after suffering from paranoid delusions early in 1979.
They had originally met at Howard University in Washington D.C. studying music in the 1960s, had success individually, then recorded a hugely successful LP together in 1972 called simply Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway. It includes the songs You’ve Got A Friend and Where Is The Love. Donny’s condition led to a breakdown in the relationship with Roberta through the 1970s, but they did record The Closer I Get To You on Roberta’s Blue Lights In The Basement LP in 1978, then decided to record a second LP together. Sadly Roberta had to finish it on her own. The result however is stunningly beautiful. Every single song is a stand-out. Stevie Wonder co-wrote You Are My Heaven with producer Eric Mercury then gave Roberta one of his greatest songs “Don’t Make Me Wait Too Long“, which is the song which leapt out at me in that Holloway squat.
The immense bass-line is one of those disco show-off lines which compel you to dance, and is played, as are all the instruments on this song, by Stevie Wonder himself apparently – or is it? Surely it’s more likely that Stevie’s longstanding bass player Nathan Watts is the uncredited player. It is similar in style and flexibility to Stevie’s Do I Do, which was recorded around the same time. Luther Vandross sings backing vocals along with Gwen Guthrie, Stevie, and possibly Jocelyn Brown. It has been a favourite song of mine since 1981, and I have often played it at houseparties where I may have been DJ-ing. One notable memory was in Upper Abbey in Brighton when we had a houseful of playmates, and this song got dropped. Jenny and two of her sisters immediately went into full disco mode and mayhem ensued.
Roberta Flack is still very much alive and I’m lucky enough to have seen her live a couple of times in recent years. She doesn’t play this song, but still plays Back Together and Where Is The Love live along with The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, the song which rocketed her to stardom back in 1969. She is a classically-trained musician who enjoys covering other writers work, particularly Lennon/McCartney/Harrison and Marvin Gaye. She is also a superb singer. Her back catalogue has considerable pedigree, from the dark soul of Reverend Lee to the frothy disco of Uh Uh Ooh Ooh Look Out (Here It Comes).
I knew there was another reason why I loved Roberta
I don’t think I can imagine a song which less suits the bleak spring of 1981. There we were in that druggy council squat that had all its windows smashed by some junkie scum and forced us back onto the street, and back into a relationship I’d finished twice already. But life isn’t always neat and tidy like that. And memory plays tricks. This is one of them.
I have to thank my brother, currently living in Shanghai, for major assistance with remembering this episode in our lives. His recall, though also blurry, is considerably better than mine. Thanks Paul x