My Pop Life #241 : Good Times – Chic

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Good Times – Chic

…leave your cares behind…

The end of a very bad week.  The final week of July 2020.  May is years ago, March is ancient history.  Everything is vague and without form, stretched and lumpen at the same time, the same time, at the same time.  Is it Thursday?  And yet things are moving so fast.  Future historians, claiming to be experts in 2020 will be asked “which month?” Unmarked cars bundling protestors to unknown destinations.  Tear gas and Federal troops in Portland being faced down by a Wall of Moms.  Covid-19 raging through Florida, Texas, California, Georgia, Arizona.  Statues of confederate generals coming down.  The $600 pandemic unemployment assistance (PUA) landed into our bank account on Wednesday to save us but there will be no more.  Unless the House Bill already passed to renew the payments (in May!) is taken by the Senate before Friday.  It feels like the whole country is teetering on the edge of chaos.  We certainly are.  Without that $600 every week – on top of our normal unemployment ‘insurance’ – we couldn’t pay our rent.  It actually covers the rent, gas and power, internet and TV.  The rest goes on food.  Union dues (not suspended).  We do sums.  We could survive until December, just.  Trump declares a $200 a week renewal instead.  This will extend us for another month.  It is not up to him though thank fuck.  But have the Senate left it too late?  What is going on?  Then the accountant calls.  How do we plan on paying our tax bill this year??

The tension is palpable in the house as Jenny and I both individually go through mental scenarios of how this will play out.  Result : misery.  We are 100 days from the election.  Which Trump wants to postpone.  Because he is also refusing to bail out the Post Office – the USPS – which is almost bankrupt.  Because he is against voting by mail aka absentee ballots.  Which have a close to zero history of fraud and abuse.  Already Republican Governors have been closing down voting stations in african-american areas, causing lines of waiting voters of five hours or more in the recent primaries.  In the middle of a pandemic.  The crisis is real.  His tactics are obvious. He wants to claim – when he loses, because he is toast as I have been saying for months now – I say he wants to claim that the election is rigged.  He wants to pave the way for clinging to power.  He really needs to be defeated very heavily indeed.  Of course Biden is a corporate stooge, same old steady hand on the tiller of business-as-usual theft and corruption and poverty.  But four more years of Trump and I cannot see any kind of democracy surviving in this beknighted land.  Dark times.  Racism thrives everywhere. Police violence every single day.  Prisons full of black men. Making profits for corporations.  For marijuana offences.  Latinx families under constant threat of ICE bashing down their doors in dawn raids and pulling out people to be taken away like the Slave Catchers of 1850.  The leading scientists and epidemiologists being pilloried by the President in the media and people refusing to wear masks across the land.  This country is sick.  The only balm is that Brooklyn is still fairly sensible at the moment and we feel relatively safe outside. It has taken months to get here.

Safe enough to go for a short walk out to buy Jenny some hair grease and drop into Trader Joe’s.  We walk across the park on Friday afternoon as the time ticks by and no agreement is reached in the  Senate.  Are we all doomed.  It doesn’t just affect us, of course – millions of people are expected to pay rent on the 1st of August, and landlords are now coming for the four months rent which was suspended in March.  The whole week has been in shadow and foreboding.  Worry and doubt.  We cannot concentrate on our projects, there is no focus.  We ‘re not in the right headspace I heard somebody say.

The stress of lockdown has expressed itself in various invisible and visible ways.  I have had styes on both eyes which needed constant care with witch hazel and requests for Lucy and Mandy to send me the gel which is not available over here.  It does, slowly, work.  Jenny has had tight shoulder and neck muscles which develops into a migraine if she doesn’t time the medication precisely.  Sometimes it happens overnight as she sleeps.  Many people are eating their feelings and getting heavy.  So tempting.  But it is summer and I decide to change my size by eating smaller portions. A fistful of food for each meal as Richard Grant told me last time he was over.  And – yes – the size changes.  Jenny and I do pilates every other day, stretching and mixing up push-ups and floor exercises to a disco soundtrack, otherwise we’d have become gargoyles locked in our final frozen embrace no longer able to walk up or down the spiral stairs.

We look at our two cats Roxy and Boy and how they trust us and demand love.  We brought them over on a plane with us in 2014 and we really don’t want to put them through that again.  If and when we leave New York it will be by car or boat.  We like it here, the local NY Governor Andrew Cuomo has handled the pandemic well, his competence is welcome enough in the current climate.  He shields us from the worst instincts of this moronic President.  (I’m not discussing his dodgy Democratic politics and wooing of the wealthy).  In many ways the Federal system is saving our bacon – or facon which we eat with boiled egg in a breakfast salad.  Bars and restaurants that don’t follow the covid protocols are closed, have their licences withdrawn because people just can’t stand to not be in crowds, drinking, maskless.  People are going crazy.  I don’t blame them.

We’re in regular contact with England and the pandemic response there doesn’t really make us want to go back.  They have to work out their own shielding because the government gave up months ago.   Barnard Castle and beyond.  How dark must the shadow go before the light appears?  We are about a year away from opening theatres, concerts, football matches to the public.  Let’s Be Honest.

As we walk across the park towards De Kalb Avenue everyone is out enjoying the mild warm sunshine – a rare pleasant day amid the incessant humidity and tropical sunshine which beats New York City into a puddle every summer.  Everyone is masked unless they’re eating ice-cream or drinking, or maybe just a wanker.  Past the hospital where I got my coronavirus test four weeks ago, two days after Cuomo encouraged everyone on television to get the test “it’s free” if you’d been on a demonstration or protest.  I had, so I went in, they took 40 minutes to do the paperwork then probe my sinus cavity with a swab and off I went.  The result was negative, delivered by phone two days later.  But then two weeks after that my HealthPlan, run by my union the Screen Actor’s Guild, sent me the paperwork which showed that the test had cost $1600 and they had covered it.  I appealed because Cuomo had said it was free.  I wasn’t paying it, but they shouldn’t either.  I don’t understand the health system here at all I must say.  And they didn’t do the antibody test either.  Although there is now evidence that after three months, the antibodies weaken considerably which is not good news for a vaccine.

As James Lovelock said the other day, the virus is there because of us.  Because we have spread our influence and interference over the planet for so long and in so many disrespectful ways, that it is doing the balance that it has always done. A self-regulating living entity – Gaia – has a constantly cycling and recycling amount of every chemical which has always been here and is always in flux, rising and falling going in and out like the tide, turning carbon into sand which washes into the sea, becomes used for shells of creatures who die and deposit on the sea bed which will one day become another landmass and be washed out again into sand.  Or – be burned by volcanic activity – the only way in which CO2 is naturally sourced by the atmosphere.  According to this theory, human production of CO2 is causing the planet to change the cycle, and among other conditions – coral bleaching, algal blooms and grape vines in Norway – we seeing icecaps melting.  Humans have also crowded animals into smaller and smaller pieces of land.  The pressure we have exerted on the natural cycles (of which we are part obviously) is causing a reaction.  Viruses are a way of balancing the conditions for life back to health – which is what Gaia always does.  And the way coronavirus is spreading through our species, attacking people in myriads of different ways indicates that we have become food.

Some people are in denial, but we have become food.

And so the two masked foods walked past the hospital and did not clap for the health workers inside as we had done at 7pm every night for three months, banging bin lids and saucepans, whistling and cheering.  That bit of the lockdown was over.  Actually the numbers in New York State have got better – 8 deaths today, 11 yesterday – and the city has started to open up.  Carefully.  Restaurants have put tables and chairs and awnings on the sidewalks, spilling out into the streets and little pockets of Brooklyn have becomes scenes with DJs and drinks and masks.  As we cross Flatbush Avenue into downtown Brooklyn we walk through the outdoor seating area for Juniors, one of the oldest established diners in New York, black-owned.  Famous Cheesecake.  Nice atmosphere inside.   And outside today.

Downtown Brooklyn – Fulton Street mall – christened Kingston Jamaica by Jenny years ago – is bustling with sidewalk stalls selling head-wraps and CDs,  masks and disinfectant wipes, incense and hats.  Only buses and the odd bicycle to make you jump out of the road.  Almost 100% black people.  All masked.  Shopping.  Selling.  Hanging.  A feeling that we are at the end of July and tomorrow the axe will fall on all of our finances.  Teetering on the edge.  I stop outside the hair shop as Jenny goes inside for her stuff.  I light a cigarette and let my mask drop.  It is relaxed and focussed but I imagine that everyone is dreading the beginning of August tomorrow. I inhale and watch a man talking to everyone who walks by.  I imagine a story of someone stealing his story for their drama project.  I watch the wonderful mixture of clothes, hairstyles, ages, shapes.  I finish my cigarette and pull the mask back up.

What will we all do?   I can’t feel the tension, but I know it’s there because this is the new weird, as my beautiful friend Jo Thornhill said this week.

And then I hear it.  The distinctive four on the floor beat bass drum and slap, the scratchy guitar, the genius cameo piano line, the harmony female vocals as the sound gets nearer and nearer and I realise that a man is pushing a large speaker along – like a Peavey amp & speaker combo inside a shopping trolley which absolutely thumps out bright and loud as a discotheque as he marches down the sidewalk bouncing in time to the beat :

Good times !
These. are. the. good. times
Leave. your. cares. behind
These. are. the. good. times

Ha!!  I had to laugh inside my mask.

A rumor has it that it’s getting late
Time marches on, just can’t wait
The clock keeps turning, why hesitate?
You silly fool; you can’t change your fate
Let’s cut a rug, a little jive and jitterbug
We want the best, we won’t settle for less
Don’t be a drag; participate
Clams on the half shell, and roller-skates, roller-skates

I mean it was genius.  The guy was a genius.  These covid 19 times.  These Trump times. These Black Lives Matter times.   These Brexit times.   These good times.

 

Good times
These are the good times
Leave your cares behind
These are the good times

My Pop Life #239 : You’re The First, The Last, My Everything – Barry White

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You’re The First, The Last, My Everything  –  Barry White

We got it together, didn’t we?
We’ve definitely got our thing together, don’t we baby?
Isn’t that nice?
I mean, really, when you really sit and think about it, isn’t it really, really nice?
I can easily feel myself slipping more and more ways
That super world of my own
Nobody but you
And me
We’ve got it together, baby
Ohhhh ohhhh

*

Pow.  That’s how the long version begins.  When you read it, read it aloud like a white person, sitting down, it seems ludicrous.  That’s because you have to mean it.  And maybe, have a voice that comes from your boots through your gut and out from your heart.  Maybe, just maybe, you have to be Barry White.

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*

Remember the early days of lockdown?  Seems like five years ago.

*

Diary Extract

Monday night in Brooklyn, 17th March 2020.

We are entering the unknown.  The truly unprecedented moment which the world has not faced before.  OK Spanish flu in 1918, 102 years ago.

We don’t go out very much but today – the last day that pubs cafes and restaurants will be open, we decided to have a last romantic meal in Olea on Lafayette, three blocks from our duplex.  We made quite a big deal of getting ready, the sun was pale but warmed the 7 degrees Centigrade air, spring is making an attempt.  When we got there it was closed with a sign on the door.

WE ARE SADLY CLOSED TEMPORARILY

Which was sad.  Would we go home?  We walked back up to De Kalb and found Dino’s Roman’s and Brooklyn Public House also closing up because of the city ordinance.  Walked up Clinton Avenue to Myrtle where Mr Coco had run out of baked beans and potatoes.  Opposite was Puttnam’s – a gastro pub where we ate on our first night in Brooklyn over six years ago.  It was open.  We walked in and the bar menu was available, along with alcohol.  About eight people were sitting at the bar.  We sat in the far corner in a pool of spring sunshine and ordered Impossible Burgers.  I had a pint of Guinness, Jenny a glass of Stella.  When will we next do that?

People came and went, squeezing the hand sanitizer on the wall as they did so.  We paid with a card, and Jenny squirted it with her new lavender sani bottle containing 62% alcohol.  It was a strange but lovely meal.  We tipped the waiter $20 on a $60 bill.  He had four hours left on his shift before they closed for… how long? Where was his next tip coming from?

It was a short walk home with plenty of people out.  I stood outside smoking while Jenny bought apple juice, limes and eggs in Greenville Gardens our local bodega.   The girl serving asked after me and remembered our discount code because she is sweet.  The other girl was scared.  No one knows what to feel.

*

Harry Potter and The Cursed Child closed on Broadway last Thursday at 5pm and Jenny, who plays Hermione, came home stunned and in mourning.  The 2nd year cast were due to finish on Sunday and there was a grand farewell party planned to send them off in style, including her stage husband Ron, played by Matt Mueller.  She has been in mourning for this stolen moment since then.  But she has also been left without a show to do, without wages (we’ll see what happens there?) and without a distraction for her to stop her thinking about her sister Dee who died last summer.

Now it’s just us four in the house.  Jenny, Ralph, Roxy and BoyBoy.  We haven’t got a routine yet, but every morning I tend to wake and make tea & toast and bring it all upstairs.  I like marmalade and jack cheese, and Boy always gets a corner of cheese which he loves so much that he will chew my fingernail in case there’s any left in there.  Then every other day there is Pilates downstairs to disco music.  I’ve decided to do a PhD in Disco during this lull.  Brother Paul thought it was for real.  He was a disco kid back when it was a thing, a gay man in New York City in 1980 dancing in the clubs to Donna Summer, Sylvester, Cerrone, Patrick Juvet.  I’m a much more recent convert – probably around 20 years ago when I started to really love it.  My way in was via Philly soul and the Gamble & Huff productions of the O Jays, Harold Melvin and Thom Bell with The Stylistics who have become my favourite band.  From there you acknowledge Norman Whitfield and Papa Was A Rolling Stone, Earth, Wind and Fire, Barry White and George Macrae.  It’s been fun talking to Paul about it over the last few days.

I’m also writing up the numbers of Covid 19 cases and deaths every day, country by country.  Some kind of handle to grasp on it, this strange blurry unseen enemy.  Watching Biden and Bernie, in their late 70s arguing on TV about who had the best plans for the virus and thinking they’ll both die if it gets them.  So therefore who will be the running mate?  The British Government, the US President and the Brazilian President have all shown a shoddy and weak approach because they are all populist blowhards who reject experts and appeal to racists and homophobes for their support.  Perhaps this crisis will see the beginning of the end of this kind of leader.  Perhaps the voters will understand that leaders are needed who have a level head and listen to experts.

It’s strange to think how utterly changed the world will be once this passes.  There will be a massive recession.  There will be numbers of dead.  But perhaps, maybe the world will have hit the re-set button and we will have spent some time thinking about how we organise ourselves and our world.  We can only hope.

 *

Now it’s July 10th 2020.  Has anything changed? Oh yes, plenty.  George Floyd was murdered by racist policemen in Minneapolis at the end of May and the world exploded.  This triggered Jenny’s first walk outside since that visit to Puttnams.  Down to Barclays Center and the crowds of protestors.  The anger was greater than the fear.   A police car was burned on De Kalb Avenue and the ashes now form a memorial to George Floyd. We had constant NYPD helicopters hovering overhead ever since and nearby.  Then we had fireworks every night for six weeks, from all directions. And we’ve had Covid-19 powering through all of it.  I had the test a couple of weeks ago at Brooklyn Hospital  just across Fort Greene Park there. Negative.  Yes and I spent many hours immersed in my Disco PhD – indeed when I mentioned this fact to a screenful of students I was teaching one afternoon some young wag said

“Oh so you’re going to be a Doctor of Disco?”

Let’s not get carried away.  But on that first weekend I had volunteered to guru for Songbar once again, I usually do about 4 weekends a year.  I feel as if I have spoken about this before – an online music blog with people suggesting songs and tunes to fit a musical theme which changes every week.   This particular week I suggested Songs Which Quote Shakespeare which was quite max factory of me, but sometimes you have to embrace the cheese mon ami, mon petit gruyére.  (Where’s the backwards accent on a computer?)  Anyway.  And there on Day 2 some young blade named pejepeine suggested a tune I had never heard before called Romeo & Juliet by one Alec Costandinos which is a disco marvel and lasts a full 15 minutes in twelve inch format.  Blimey what a discovery that was, and straight into my top twelve Shakespeare tunes.  The rest you can find here :

https://www.song-bar.com/song-blog/playlists-songs-that-quote-shakespeare

If you so desire.  It seems clear to me that Alec Costandinos was influenced greatly by Barry White.  And listening to these disco tunes every other day as we stretched and twisted and bounced our Pilates around the apartment it occurred to me that disco had been coming for years before Disco.

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Not proto disco.  Actual Disco.

I found a Youtube playlist called Proto Disco – the tunes that took us to disco.  They include the ones mentioned above, essentially – Philly Soul, The Tempts and the great Barry White.  Some other nice discoveries – MFSB weren’t just a one-hit wonder for example. The Hues Corporation were though perhaps. And then I swooned into Barry White.  Did Pilates to Barry White.  Did a PhD in Barry White.  Told my friend Simon about my PhD in Barry White.  Confessed that actually it  was more of an O Level in Barry White to be fair.  But, readers who have read thus far, here are the salient facts.

a)  Love Unlimited are Barry’s backing vocalists, sisters Glodean James (who married Barry), Linda James and their cousin Diane Taylor.  They had hits in 1972 with Walking In The Rain (With The One I Love) and 1973 with It May Be Winter Outside (But In My Heart It’s Spring), both written by Barry White, although the latter song was co-written by Paul Politi and was a minor hit for Felice Taylor in 1967 as was I Feel Love Coming On also written and produced by Paul & Barry.  Walking In The Rain was a hit a full year before Barry White’s first single.

b)  The Love Unlimited Orchestra was formed by Barry White in 1973 as a backing group for Love Unlimited.  However they were soon releasing music of their own, with no top line.  I found the first LP, Rhapsody In White at the Brooklyn flea market about five years ago.  What a find !

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An unusual combination at the time of funk rhythms and orchestral instrumentation, in retrospect it seems clear that this is the birth of disco.  Barry White wrote long and short versions of the classic Love’s Theme which was released in 1973 and made number one on the pop charts.   It changed the world.  To me it sounds like a TV Theme tune until we start dancing.  It is classic disco from 1973, three long years before Disco was DISCO.  Perfection.  Groove.  I had to tussle with myself about which Barry White song to choose today.  Here’s the long version of Love’s Theme.  Grab your lover and move gently around the room to this baby

There is something supremely endless about this song

c)  Barry White wanted to be a writer, producer and arranger – and so he was for many years, working with longtime collaborator Paul Politi, until one day in 1973 Paul suggested, for the eleventeenth time, that Barry re-record his demo and sing the damn song himself.  Now Barry’s voice is one of the world’s 70 wonders, a bass baritone which shakes the buttons on your blouse.  His voice dropped when he was 14 and apparently his mother wept.  The first of many mothers to weep.  Larry Nunes was Barry’s business manager by now, and together with Politi they persuaded Barry to record the song himself.  That song was I’m Gonna Love You Just A Little Bit More Baby.  It appeared on the first LP I’ve Got So Much To Give and the rest is pop history, R & B legend and musical eternity.

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My brother Paul was way ahead of me on this curve because he spotted the genius of Barry White early on, certainly by Never Never Gonna Give You Up with it’s breathy sighs and pillow talk in the mix and

“quitting just ain’t my stick”

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But for Paul I think it was the production that he loved, the rooted bass line in lockstep with the warm crisp architecture of the drums.  Wacka wacka rhythm guitar, some french horns summoning us all to the mountaintop, and violins and flutes on the top end creating lush generous fills.  Barry’s voice felt compassionate and passionate at the same time.  Somehow made it sound like he wasn’t going to force anything, wasn’t going to stretch his voice like Little Richard or James Brown, no, this was another style, not reaching but drawing you in, relaxed and centred and genuine.  It was the sound of the heart of the 1970s.

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People took the piss from day one, especially men, small dick energy wrote about The Walrus Of Love and stuff like that.  Barry was a smiley performer though, if you watch any of his concerts online (and I do recommend it!) he always takes time to walk through the audience, shaking hands with people and kissing the ladies, never missing a beat, singing the whole way.  Quite a show.  My late development as a soul fan (early 20s) means that I missed many of the greats, including Barry White, Millie Jackson, Teddy Pendergrass and Marvin Gaye playing live.  But I’ve been a lucky boy too and am eternally grateful and blessed to have seen Aretha, Smokey, Curtis Mayfield, Chaka Khan and Parliament/Funkadelic. And now we all have Youtube, where Barry and Teddy and Marvin sing every night.

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In 1974 as I started the Upper Sixth at school Paul was leaving his school in Hailsham and leaving home because Mother had sent him a solicitor’s letter, using her mental illness as a weapon to force him out of the house.  He was 16 years old.  He went to live in Eastbourne, then Pevensey Bay and got a job in the local tax office.  In October 1974 You’re The First, The Last, My Everything was released, another of Barry White’s unfeasibly long titles, and a piece de resistance of a song which reached both Paul and I in different ways, and the coveted Number One position on the UK Charts.   A fact which meant that it was in contention (surely) when the Guardian decided to list the 100 Greatest Number One Hit Singles later in lockdown this year and signally failed to include it.  My family had a Zoom Call around that time – May 2020 I reckon – and Paul, now living in Shanghai, was furious.  Given that the Pet Shop Boys’ West End Girls had made number one, and Human League were in the top ten he had a good point.  Once again it was Barry White not getting his due, being sidelined, not included in ‘best of’ lists.  It perhaps is partly to do with his physical appearance (maybe he predicted/feared this), or more feasibly his style of music and the way he delivered it.  Barry White made songs that appealed to women, directly.  Men knew this and ridiculed it because deep deep down it makes them feel inadequate.  Which they often are.  I always loved dancing to Barry but I didn’t take it seriously or recognise his true genius until I did my O Level earlier this year.  My Lockdown Lover.  A truly towering figure.

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It was the night of Dee’s funeral, October 2019 or was it more likely the night before Jenny and I flew back to New York, two days later.  A Sunday night.  Deep emotional unprecedented days in High Wycombe with the family.  Me, Jen, Mandy, Lucy, Mollie (?), Marlyn, Uncle Lee, I think it must have been around 1.30am and no one wanted to say goodnight, we were camped in the living room downstairs and someone flicked through the channels.  A Barry White documentary.  Talking about his orchestrations, his collaborators, his charisma, and his sad death at only 58 years old in July 2003 in Cedars Sinai hospital Los Angeles when the family were kept from visiting him by the hospital staff on the instructions of his girlfriend and manager, presumably with the support of ex-wife Glodean who became the sole executor of the will.   Two of his children have since sued Glodean as their monthly allowances dried up and stopped.  And talking about how this song was written as a country tune some 20 years earlier (in the 50s) by his old friend Stirling Radcliffe entitled “You’re My First, My Last, My Inbetween”, whereupon Barry changed the words and upped the tempo considerably and then improvised his way through the intro on take 2 which is the one that became the hit smasherooni.

Play this song.  You will hit the snare drum, just a little late, just like the record does, perhaps hitting your thigh, or the person who you are dancing with, or cracking an invisible whip.  One of the signature sounds of my life.  Thwack!

Let’s all hail the Soul Lover, the one and only, the great musical wonder that is

Barry White

 

My Pop Life #238 : Hot Pants – James Brown

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Hot Pants   –   James Brown

Hot Pants…

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Number 2 Somerfield Road, Finsbury Park.  Top flat – under the eaves, a one-room attic dwelling with two sloping ceilings.  I lived there with Mumtaz, my girlfriend whom I’d left in 1980 to explore South America with my brother Paul for a year’s travel, but returned after four months spent in Mexico with tail between legs and Hepatitus B.  She took me back in, and life went on.  Finsbury Park, as noted in My Pop Life #42 was a delight.  Every now and again we could hear a muffled roar of delight from Highbury as Arsenal scored.   Not that often obviously, ha ha ha.  One-nil to The Arsenal was the 80s cry.   My beloved Brighton & Hove Albion’s cup run in 1983 took us to a semi-final against Sheffield Wednesday at Highbury.   Down the road.  I went to the game, which we won 2-1 thanks to a brilliant Jimmy Case free kick.  We were in the Cup Final!  1983 was clearly a blessing all round.  Laurie Jones was downstairs, communist, comrade, veteran of the Cable St riots against Moseley’s blackshirts and maker of his own wine.   In work mode :  the premiere and run of  Steven Berkoff’s “West” at the Donmar Warehouse in May of that year.   My first fully professional, fully paid proper acting job.  We ran there for five months then filmed it for the new Channel 4 (see Let’s Dance My Pop Life #221).

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In saxophone playing mode I was on this tune – Hot Pants.  Deceptively simple, it has to be precise, punchy, tongued exactly, every note must be the right length, it must attack, and the timing is everything.  Like all of James Brown’s magnificent work, the percussive element is primary, and the bulk of the tune is carried over one chord until the bridge, the long awaited release of the bridge.  Take it to the bridge.  Shall I take it to the bridge?  The famous cry from Sex Machine.  One of the genius elements of James Brown is how long you have to wait for the bridge in almost every song.  He knows his dynamics.  So did George Mack.

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Who?  This fella, a tremendous Anglo-Nigerian singer from Finsbury Park.  Where did we meet?  How did we find out that we were both musicians?  I cannae remember captain.  But this I do know – I was playing Hot Pants in the flat while Taj was at work because the band I was in at this time – George’s band Arc Connexxion – had it in their set.   I was one of three horns in Arc Connexxion, an afro-pop outfit which was a bit Fela Kuti, a bit soul, a bit funk, and a bit of George’s own compositions.  It was fun.  Looking back, it is exactly the kind of band I long to play in right now, here in New York : dance music with a brass/woodwind section, african-influenced.

I’d bought James Brown’s 30 Golden Hits while I was at LSE a few years earlier, exploring the landscape of soul music with my Glaswegian friend Lewis MacLeod. We were beyond aficionados, we were obsessed with hunting down the very best soul tunes of the previous 25 years.  Motown of course, Stax Records indeed, Atlantic’s huge six-album box set, Philadelphia Records and then all the other smaller labels – Sue Records, Curtom, Brunswick, SAR, Hi, et al.  I remember buying Stay With Me Baby by Lorraine Ellison one day like finding treasure on a desert island and we played it over and over, What A Difference A Day Makes by Esther Phillips, Why Can’t We Live Together by Timmy Thomas, Love TKO by Teddy Pendergrass, all golden.

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But James Brown was the record which got played a lot.  James Brown was on King Records, an independent label based in Cincinatti, Ohio. The greatest hits album was on Polydor and was a great primer to the man’s genius.  Hard to remember life before the internet, but the moment I saw Please Please Please on television I’ll never forget – the famous cape drama, the anguish, the concerned bandmates, the eruption of emotion when the cape is cast aside Yet Again. It’s magical theatre of soul music so it is, check it out, never gets old :

Lewis and I were hooked frankly.  Each song was better than the last – I Got You, Night Train, Think, I Feel Good, Out Of Sight, Try Me, I’ll Go Crazy,  Poppa’s Got A Brand New Bag, Cold Sweat.  We wished we could see him live.   He never came.  But, eventually, he did.  It was in Brighton one summer in Stanmer Park in the year 2000.  It was called the Essential Festival.  James Brown’s star had waned, he hadn’t charted for years, but his name was still synonymous with legend.  However, he was 67 years old, all the hype was that he only did 20 minutes in all, the bulk of the show was the band and younger singers & rappers.  And by then I’d immersed myself in Live At The Apollo the greatest Live Album of all time, and gorged on the youtube clips of the man in his prime, It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World, Say It Loud (I’m Black And I’m Proud) and the ubiquitous, brilliant Sex Machine.  I didn’t want those images to be replaced by a disappointment.  So I actually chose not to go.  Do I regret it now?  Kind of.  Yes.  Of course.  Other people I’ve rocked up to when in their 70s – McCartney, Aretha, Roberta Flack – and one in his 90s the amazing Tony Bennett – were all superb.  We were a little nervous about Aretha because there was some word of mouth that sometimes she “doesn’t turn up”, well she certainly did that night (see My Pop Life #225) god bless her, so that was nonsense.  But I remember distinctly deciding to swerve the great Godfather of Soul James Brown.  A fairly childish decision really.  The great festival- going kid of the 1970s had turned into the tight-assed muso-snob of the millenium.  But since I wasn’t there, I can’t tell you about The Essential Festival that year.  Silly me.

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Arc Connexxion rehearsed at George’s house just down Blackstock Road from where I lived.  Once a week in the evening.  I do not remember the rest of the band at all.  Who were they?  A racially mixed bunch who could play Motown, Fela and James Brown.  Out of my league perhaps, but playing a James Brown horn line is considerably easier than attempting John Coltrane or Stan Getz (see Desafinado My Pop Life #68), in fact playing in a horn section (this was my first time) is easier than playing solo.  But you have to be tight.  Tight as a camel’s arse in a sandstorm tight. The tongue on the reed has to be exact.  Percussive.  I loved it.  Our crowning moment was playing at Notting Hill Carnival after Aswad in August 1983 where we were last on the bill, and didn’t get to play Hot Pants after all (see My Pop Life #42).  We were hustled on and told we could play one song before the curfew and Carnival had to close.  We played Martha Reeves’ Dancing In The Street, and hundreds of people who didn’t want to go home yet did just that.  Fantastic.  It was our biggest crowd ever.

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Jenny and Lulu went to the James Brown gig in 2000 and reported back disappointment and a sense of a great artist being wheeled out, a circus act.  Jenny says that apparently James Brown actually was James Brown for one whole song (I should have gone), after which he went off and the young performers, rappers and funkateers played for 15 minutes before he came back, but he just couldn’t do it again and he simply stopped being James Brown and became a kind of JB tribute act and so she was sad.  So was Lulu.  A few years later Jenny and her sister Lucy saw Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis who were both in their late 80s and while Chuck was still Chuck Berry, Jerry was on a zimmer frame and scarcely present.  I’ve felt this way about Brian Wilson, my absolute musical hero, for the last few years.  They’re wheeling out a cash cow.  He’s not Brian anymore.  Leave him be.

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But James Brown?  If you think about it he has to be the greatest genius of popular music.  You could argue Louis Armstrong and it might be difficult to resist.  But JB is a giant.  He emerged from the 1950s as a fully formed soul star before the term had even been invented, fusing R & B and gospel into a funk sound a whole decade before it was even thought of.  During the 1960s the sound was honed and streamlined, the melody lines erased and the rhythms amplified and tightened.  The Vocals were punctuated howls, shrieks, shouts and calls.  Astounding. Pure dance music.  Popular, political, immersive, irresistible.  He was the first and most popular artist to be sampled on the turntables of DJs in the South Bronx, the drum breaks of Clyde Stubblefield are all over old skool hip hop.  All hip hop.  When he stole the rhythm and riff of Bowie & Lennon’s Fame from Young Americans for his song Hot (I Need To Be Loved, Loved, Loved) in 1975, no one blinked.  I suspect Bowie thought it was an honour frankly, which indeed it was. JB was infamous for running his band like a military outfit, musicians would get fined for missing a cue or a bum note or a snare hit on the wrong beat or being seconds late for rehearsal.  Not greasing their patent leather shoes or tying their bowtie.  A number of times bandleader PeeWee Ellis walked out only to come back, but in 1970, Ellis, Stubblefield, Fred Wesley and the other Famous Flames never came back and JB then recruited players from Cincinatti band The Pacemakers to replace them, include Bootsy Collins (see Give Up The Funk My Pop Life #138). He called the new band The J.B.s.  His rhythms are in house music, soul music, funk, hip hop, jungle, drum & bass, disco, you name it.  Michael Jackson’s greatest influence.  I can’t do him justice in this bloglet of mine and by the way he was probably bonkers too but what a musical giant.  What a towering extraordinary figure in the musical landscape. What a force.

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When The Brighton Beach Boys played people’s parties or weddings we would play a whole load of other material – disco, funk, ska, rock n roll and even Steely Dan and ELO, and when he can, our very own nutty drummer the itinerant rhythmicist Theseus Gerrard (mentioned in My Pop Life #111 and others) gets up to sing Get Up Offa That Thing and the whole room goes up to a different level.  We played it at Caroline Lucas’ 50th birthday in Brighton at the Indica Gallery in town which is based in an old church, and Theseus quite naturally climbed into the still-present pulpit to deliver his message of funk.  He’s a natural the fucker.  The funk of forty thousand years.

So I’ve played at least two James Brown songs in my short musical career.  Hot Pants is my favourite.  Could I get to play anymore before my ultimate death?  I’m 63 now.  Time is ticking…

 

The original number one hit single from 1971, Parts One & Two

Live and direct in 1985…

My Pop Life #221 : Let’s Dance – David Bowie

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Let’s Dance – David Bowie

For fear your grace should fall
(Let’s dance)
For fear tonight is all
(Let’s sway)
You could look into my eyes
(Let’s sway)
Under the moonlight, this serious moonlight

Early 1983.  I am living in Finsbury Park with dear Mumtaz, under the eaves of the top floor on Blackstock Road.  Downstairs is Laurie Jones, a lifelong communist who supports Tottenham Hotspur, but also has a season ticket for Arsenal.  He watches football every Saturday as a result.  I will write a piece on Laurie.  Below him is Shirley, a Jamaican gentleman who tends the blues club in the basement.  Up in the top room, a bedsit which is the length of the house, Taj is doing legal exams, I am starting out on an acting career, and I’ve just finished a production of John Godber‘s expressionist adaptation of A Clockwork Orange at The Man In The Moon on the King’s Road with various Yorkshire ActorsPaul Rider, Peter Geeves, Andy Winters.  Two years earlier in 1981 I’d done an adaptation of The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari with these fellas which toured the UK and ended up at The Dominion Theatre in Tottenham Court Road as part of Bill Nelson’s Invisibility Exhibition.  Both productions were non-naturalistic, and partly took their inspiration from Jerzy Grotowski and Steven Berkoff.

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I think this was 1982

I’ve snaffled an agent from A Clockwork Orange having written to every single agent in the book with my photo and CV like you had to in those days.  David Preston had come to see the show and signed me up.  I was young, green and full of beans and this was my first agent so I was grateful.  David Preston had an office in Dean Street, a walk-up to a camp crimson velvet-curtained den where he presided over his boys.  I walked up to see him one day because I still got a weekly digest called PCR – the Professional Casting Report – and I’d read that my hero Steven Berkoff was auditioning for his new play, West.

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Steven Berkoff

Yes my hero.  When I decided to act for a living (detailed in My Pop Life #140)  – I’d seen one of his shows – East.  It blew me away.  Expressionist yobby Cockney Shakespeare like nothing else on the English Stage.  The language, the committed performances, the extraordinarily huge and expressive performances.  Hooked, I sought him out and in the subsequent years saw The Fall Of The House Of Usher at the Cottesloe and his one-man show A Tell-Tale Heart and Dog.  I think I’m right.  I’d seen three shows before I went for the West audition.

Back in the velvet cave I demanded that David Preston got me in there.  It was compulsory !  And to be fair he did get me an audition.  I can’t remember where it was but perhaps at The Donmar Warehouse.  We were seen in groups of four at a time which was odd to start with.  There he was, larger than life, a dark buzzcut cockney educated jewish voice explaining that we had all witnessed a terrible but exciting & bloody fight, and all we had to do was describe it in our own words to the gang when he pointed at us.  Bang.  Naturalism was out. Having seen the work I kind of felt that it was impossible for me to go over the top. Full cockerknee and ultraviolence courtesy of Clockwork Orange.  Male testosterone with thuggish eloquence.

I got it.  I cannot recall the phone call, or the recall, or whatever the details were, but I was cast in West.  Some time in early 1983 I found myself in a Kentish Town rehearsal room with the others : Rory Edwards playing the lead, Mike, Sue Kyd playing his girl, Sylv, John Joyce playing dad and Stella Tanner playing mum.  And three other fellas. Bruce Payne, Ken Sharrock and Steve Dixon. We were “everyone else”.  Which meant…?

Right lads.  Any part that isn’t Mike, you read those lines.  Just jump in when you feel like it OK?  Let’s go.

Bruce jumped right in and read the first TWO PAGES before I managed to elbow him aside as he drew breath, intervene and read a portion myself, then Ken jumped in, then Steve.  And so it went on, Bruce with the loudest mouth and most focussed ego, and me with the next and so on.  It was fucking exhausting.  Like a trial by combat, with words.  We got to lunch and we’d read the whole play.  It was a fantastic piece.

Well done everyone. Take an hour for lunch.  Lads, whatever lines you just read – they are your lines. OK thanks.”

WHAT???

But it was true.  The trial by dialogue had become Steven’s lazy way of dividing the lines between us.  Bruce had 50%, I had 30%, Ken and Steve had 10% each.  To our credit we all accepted it immediately, bonded as a gang, and got down to putting the play on its feet.  Bruce Payne was a smooth handsome blond from London with expressive hands, a student of Berkoff’s style and mannerisms.  Fancied himself.  Ken Sharrock was a scouser with a barrel chest and a deep growl which he started to convert into East End cockney.  Steve Dixon was smaller, chirpy & quick but with a vicious edge when he wanted.

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Rory Edwards was a tall, dark and yes handsome martial-arts specialist who rode a motorbike and black leathers.  I would work with him some 12 years later in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe for the BBC where we would play brothers – me as Prince John and him as Richard the Lionheart, the Crusader.  He was born to play these kinds of heroic parts.  Berkoff used him a lot in the 1980s, I remember seeing him as Jokanaan in Salomé, at the National Theatre with a long beard and matted hair.  Great actor.

Susan Kyd was a shapely red-head with excellent cheekbones and a beehive hairdo.  She gave as good as she got, and she got it between the eyes from Berkoff, who is not known for his kind, gentle manner.  He would berate her in the rehearsal room and she would snap something straight back whereupon he’d look at us and sneer “Mouthy Cow“.  Sue would snort in derision. She was pretty impressive.

The parents were both really sweet.  Stella Tanner, playing Mum, was a face, from Dixon of Dock Green, Corrie, and countless other TV shows.  She took Sue under her wing off-stage and was quite devastatingly hilarious because of her understanding of character.  She had some fantastic lines.  John Joyce had been with the Ken Campbell 24-hour play The Illuminatus which also spawned Bill Drummond of The KLF (My Pop Life #220). John was a gentle vague but kind soul who liked a puff, and was also hilarious, though not always when he chose to be.

So there we all were.  I cannot fully recall the absolute thrill of working with Steven Berkoff on his own play, of speaking his words, raising my game to unheard of levels where I felt positively uncomfortable, and still trusting the result.  A whole different kind of acting.  I wanted Berkoff’s approval and did my utmost to get it with my acting decisions.  I think we all felt the same.  Act Two opened with a kind of song by The Lads – Bruce, me, Ken and Steve – who played the Hoxton Mob as well as the Stamford Hill Gang.  Ken was the Hoxton Mob leader.  We were so keen that we would get into the rehearsal room an hour early at 9.00am to rehearse this scene without Steven Berkoff present, eventually revealing to him the “thing” that we had made.  A kind of flailing cockney machine of oiks, arms, elbows and arses thrusting with fuck gutteral Gertcha engine noises and “you what – you what?“.  Steven was delighted and said “keep working on it boys“.

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How The Hoxton Mob appeared in the C4 version of “West” with prosthetic make-up and Ray Burdis

The wardrobe fitting was a visit to an East End tailors in Bethnal Green called Cooper & Stiles, 390a Hackney Road ‘since 1954’. We were in the finest light 1960s-styled tailoring with snazzy shoes and thin ties.  I thought I’d landed.  I think I probably had to be fair. We looked like the dog’s bollocks.

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When we got to the Donmar for technical rehearsal we realised that we would be working on a seriously raked stage – one platform at the back with ten chairs facing out in a line, then a vicious sloped stage that everyone had to stand in action poses on to remain upright.  When our scenes onstage finished we would walk back to the chairs and sit facing the audience like statues.  Very Expressionist.  Berkoff had studied with Jacques Lecoq in Paris, who taught physical theatre and mime, Ariane Mnouchkine & Simon McBurney are among the alumni.  I’d seen the great Polish director Tadeusz Kantor at the Riverside Studios in 1981 doing his astonishing show Weilopole Weilopole, which was a stunning piece of imaginative physical theatre – and I’d become exposed to the theories of Jerzy Grotowski another Pole who wrote the influential book Towards A Poor Theatre in 1968.  This argued that theatre shouldn’t compete with film but concentrate on what was unique to the form – actors playing live in front of an audience.  What emerged was total theatre, using your body alone to suggest doors, cups, weapons or motorbikes. The power of the imagination.  Writer and director John Godber was one of the English practitioners of this kind of theatre back then including his production of A Clockwork Orange.   So were his protégées The Yorkshire Actors.  Devotees of Berkoff, naturally.  We were in that tradition in West.  A Black Box, actors and words and audience.  I fucking loved it.  A live musical and percussive accompaniment.   It was my full professional debut onstage – which is to say I was actually getting paid full whack to act in a play, written and directed by my hero.

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Ken, Bruce, Rory, Steve, Ralph – the Stamford Hill gang

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Two dressing rooms – boys, and girls.  It was terribly exciting.  We opened to great fanfare and burned it up.  Great reviews, suddenly we were the hot ticket in town, and we settled in for a five month run at The Donmar Warehouse in London’s West End.  It’s a tiny theatre and tickets were snapped up.  Word would trickle round – “Elvis Costello is in” , “Danny Boyle“, “Madness“.   David Bowie’s Let’s Dance was the song of the year, a thumping bouncy riff-tastic disco bop which started like The Isley Brothers’ Twist & Shout as played by The Beatles and finished like the Nile Rogers funk stomp which it actually was.  A Monster Tune.

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Then the curdle began.  The show was too long so Steven decides to make cuts.  My solo moment, doing the Berkoff walk on the spot, suit jacket on one finger over the shoulder : “walking home alone beneath the stars, through Stamford Hill down Amherst Road to Finsbury Park…” suddenly has a sharpened guillotine hanging over it.  “Please don’t cut that speech” I plead with Berkoff, “I live in Finsbury Park…”  He relents and the speech stays in.   A victory.  Other stuff got trimmed.  Every night before we went on Bruce would recite his entire part aloud until we kicked him out of the dressing room and he did it in a downstairs corridor.  Then Bruce started to manspread in his chair at the back when Mum & Dad were on, his knee and elbow forcing my body into contortions to avoid pain.  One night I resist with a stage whisper Fuck Off Bruce! and push back and he jumps two seats down and freezes.  A couple of scenes later we’re doing the gang scene in the toilets having a slash, backs to the audience, miming giant python knobs a la Berkoff and “who’s got a tanner for the jukebox?” as I dig deep and flick the imaginary coin across the heads of the gang who watch it arc across the stage to Bruce who catches it and pumps it into the slot. Not tonight. He pulled the coin out of his own pocket in a strange revenge moment and my flicked mimed coin lands “on the floor”. A chill went down my spine.  It sounds like a cliché but that is exactly what it felt like.  I realised that I could not trust Bruce onstage anymore.   The spell was broken and it became more tense, less magic.  But the play always takes over.  And what a play.  What words.  John Joyce would have a huge spliff before the Wednesday matinee every week then walk the plank live onstage getting fluffs and laughs in equal measure.  He would then spend the rest of the week trying to recapture the elusive laughs to little avail.

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Bruce Payne, Steve Dixon, Ralph Brown, Ken Sharrock @ Limehouse

Offstage I was going to Pineapple Dance Studios a couple of times a week and doing routines in that hotbox of spangle and leg-warmers.  What a blur it all is now. Walking around Covent Garden, Earlham Street, Neal Street then going into work for a testosterone-fuelled assault on the audience, a totally non-naturalistic Shakespeare-laced East-End tragedy of rage and tenderness and violence.  Steven was a difficult guy to get to know, but he pulled one of the great performances of my life out of me.  I wanted to please him, I needed his approval. I admired his work so much, his challenge to the audience, to the theatre establishment, to the actor.  He is the real deal.

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casual photobomb by Director John Frankau 

The show got picked up for the brand new Channel Four, and filmed at Limehouse Studios on the Isle of Dogs after we’d closed.  John Frankau directed.  It wasn’t as good as the play since it was trimmed quite a lot but it was a good craic.  We were measured for new 60s suits and I still have mine.

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Then, like in all shows, we scattered to the four winds.  Bruce and I’s relationship never recovered fully from that day, but he had immense early success as an actor and we ended up meeting again in Beverley Hills in the 90s, and Ouarzazate in the 00s.  Rory Edwards came in and out of my life like people do, a man of mystery and romance.  We met him at Heathrow on his way to St Lucia with his wife Julia Ormond one day.  I have no idea where he is now.  Ken Sharrock and I worked at the Royal Court the following summer in an incredible play called Panic! by Alan Brown, directed by Danny Boyle.  We played brothers, and Ken’s father died during the run. I remember him weeping backstage before we went on and I hugged him as he whispered “Use it, use it” as his cue approached.  For another post.

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Ken came to see me playing Macbeth at The Everyman in Liverpool (see My Pop Life #108) and gave me an hour of much-needed insight and support as I fought my way through that production, that life-changing experience that put me off the stage for 20 years and more.  He passed away in 2005.  Steve Dixon gave up acting a few years later.  (The internet tells me he is a professor and President of LaSalle College of the Arts in Singapore!)  John Joyce passed away in 2009. Where is Stella?  I think she passed in 2012. But I’m still happily in touch with Sue Kyd, who joyfully came to my 60th with legend Doña Croll and I spent a lovely evening with her last year when I went back to London to see Jenny in Congreve’s The Way Of The World at – The Donmar in 2018.  It was great to see Sue and hang out at her wonderfully located Covent Garden pad within touching distance of the theatrical & historical London she loves so much.

And Steven Berkoff.  We’ve stayed in touch through the years since then.  First the cast had been to his Limehouse pad on the river and met Clara his lovely partner, had drinks, talked shit.   The usual.  Later I got a phone call from my agent about 18 months after West had closed.  Steven was doing a new play of his called Sink The Belgrano at the Half Moon Theatre and would I audition for it?  I called Steven immediately.  “Hello Ralph” he rasped in his educated London growl, “How are you?“.  I told him I’d been asked to audition for his play that week – he said – “Ralph obviously it goes with saying that I know you and your work, and you don’t need to come in for that.”  I said thanks and hows your father, and I did not go to the audition which was the following day.  And I Never heard anything about the show since.  Haha.  Always go to the audition folks!

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A short time after that he called me to come and see a rehearsal of his one-man show Harry’s Christmas which is a sad tale of an old cantankerous git “celebrating” Christmas alone.  It was very bleak yet funny.  I gave him some thoughts.  He just needed an eye on it, and I was honoured to be asked, but my fantasy of getting a directing credit, and shepherding it to an opening was dashed into mirthless smithereens on my ego floor.

I’d see him in Brighton from time to time as he has a flat on the seafront and he’d spend weekends there with Clara.  We memorably had dinner with David Bowie one night when Steven & Bruce were performing Greek in St Martin’s Lane – scrawled into this blog at My Pop Life #54.  I saw Decadence with Steven & Linda MarloweMetamorphosis at The National with Tim Roth as Gregor.  And then he did a touring show at the Dome in Brighton in 2007, the Tell-Tale Heart, Dog, The Actor.  Jenny and I went backstage afterwards and he was all smiles and champagne and grace.

Then finally, in spring 2018, Mark-Anthony Turnage‘s opera “Greek“, with a libretto taken from Berkoff’s play, was at BAM, just down the road from where we live in Brooklyn. I bought a ticket and emailed Steven to see if he was coming.  He hadn’t decided.  In the end I watched it alone, and marvelled.  Steven didn’t come. Well he is now 82 years old.  I was proud for him all over again.   I’d love to have worked with him again, but it hasn’t happened.  That how it is right.  It’s life.  People come into your space and make their mark, have their moment, and leave you changed forever.

 

Steven Berkoff as I knew him in 1984 after we’d filmed West for C4:

Steven performs his monologue “Actor”:

Let’s Dance the original video filmed in Australia :

The most recent thing I could find :

 

My Pop Life #212 : Use It Up, Wear It Out – Odyssey

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Use It Up, Wear It Out  –  Odyssey

Do it all night
Do it all night long
Do it all night long
Do it all night

Ever since my year of musical sentience – 1971 – I reckon I’ve been over 50% musical nerd, less than 50% emotional reaction.  Drawn to strange complex compositions from the likes of  Van Der Graaf Generator and Gentle Giant when I was 14, 15 then rock, pop, jazz and classical in my twenties, and all manner of “world music” in foreign tongues in my thirties and beyond.

Although I started my musical appreciation as a child I became a musical snob once I was at big school and anything too popular was to be sneered at, with a few exceptions – The Beatles, Motown, glam-rock and Simon & Garfunkel for example.  This wasn’t a rule just a strange affliction which got challenged regularly, particularly by my younger brother Paul’s taste.  Andrew, the even younger brother had even more of an intellectual & obscure prediliction than I, happily meandering into Bill Bruford, Brand X, Delius and Opera from a young age, but in his groovetastic favour are weaknesses for funk (see My Pop Life #138) and disco, which we all grew to love.  But Paul got there first, when it was actually happening.  He found a place to belong in that world when he didn’t find one at home. Ejected from the house by our mother at the age of 16, he lived in digs in Eastbourne and worked at the tax office.  He wouldn’t come out as gay (perhaps even to himself) until a few years later when in 1980 we travelled through Mexico together and I contracted hepatitus B (see My Pop Life #72).

When he returned to London in the early 80s the first flush of disco was over and house music was in its early days. He would take me out to gay clubs with his friends and we would dance.

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Odyssey were more popular in the UK than the USA

But if I’m honest I never really fully embraced Disco as the genius music it truly is until much later.  I now have three Chic albums, Sister Sledge, the Saturday Night Fever Soundtrack and a whole collection of wonderful one-off hit singles from the likes of Wild Cherry, Cerrone, Andrea True Connection or Silver Convention. Not to mention MJ, Q and Sylvester.  I have burrowed into this world with the devotion of a born-again funkster disco queen because it is simply wonderful music, brilliantly composed & arranged, and perhaps more importantly, quite fantastic to dance to.  Or exercise to.  In my old age – yes that happened – I now do a work-out routine pretty much every day, in our apartment. Based on Pilates, a disco or a reggae soundtrack is essential. And every time this song comes on an extra spring in the step appears.

It’s a deceptively simple construction, but my entire thesis in this post is that I over-think music when I’m not stoned.  I’m a young soul, not born wise, and my education has somewhat interfered with my appreciation for the beauty of simplicity.  I have noticed throughout my life that intellectual or educational intelligence is valued much more highly than emotional intelligence.  Thinking wins over feeling.  What is emotional intelligence?  What – you mean you don’t know? I have had to learn it, or re-learn it, for I had an inkling of it as a child, as did we all.  My two cats have it.  They know when to approach, when to walk away. Empathy.  Understanding.  A little less analysis, a little more instinct and love.  A little less middle 8 a little more groove.  I’m not explaining it very well.  And ironically one of the great musical intellectuals of the 20th century made some of the very finest disco records. I’m talking about Quincy Jones work with Michael Jackson of course, so my entire thesis, apart from being vague and vaguely dodgy is simply nonsense.   But then Q is a fairly exceptional human being on every level, intellectual, emotional, musical, who can count the ways?

I said :

1  2  3  shake your body down

 

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So emotional intelligence then. Women have it.  They develop it too.  If it isn’t used in their career, respected in the system, conjoined to the intellectual and given space, then it becomes an alternative way, a parallel path.  I remember the girls at school in our year going out with older boys.  But perhaps I’m doing myself a disservice.  “I’ve always.. I’ve never..” phrases that should be banned in domestic squabble.

What I’m saying more simply is this : I value dance music more now as I grow older.  I rarely actually dance (shame) but my love is stronger.

But I still analyse even the simplest things, it’s how I am built.  Hard to let go and just dance.  I think the closest I get nowadays is exercising.  Really I should dedicate this song to the last four years of pilates. It is about breathing and posture mainly. We’ve adapted it a little and added a few weights here & there, a few stretches and so on.  But breathing is the thing that gets the blood flowing and lifts the adrenalin and generally the mood, the capability and the life within and without.  When a friend of mine confessed he was feeling depressed earlier this year and that he felt that I was perhaps someone who could help, I said – simply so that there could be no thought – move.  Move your body.  Dance, pilates, run, cycle, swim. It works.  It has lifted me through so many bipolar episodes when I wake up in the dark and cannot shake it any other way, with drugs or otherwise. Move.  Move yourself in some way dammit.

And stop thinking. Just move.  Your body and your brain Are The Same Thing.  They need oxygen. Give it to them.

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Ain’t nothin’ left in this whole world I care about

I think when I was younger I moved as a sportsman – playing football twice a week for decades – and jumping up and down at gigs – The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, Talking Heads, The Specials – and actually danced too, to The Bee Gees, Odyssey and Chic among others.  So keep moving everyone.   There was a point in there about emotional intelligence wasn’t there?  What was I trying to say?  You should be dancing? Get lost in music.  Young hearts run free.  Check out the groove. Good times. Dance, dance, dance. Love is in control.  How you gonna do it if you really don’t wanna dance? Get your back up off the wall. Off the wall. Watcha doin’ in ya bed? Shake your body, blame it on the boogie, can you feel it?, can you feel the force? jump to the beat, take it to the top and don’t stop til you get enough. Get on the floor, more, more more, burn this disco out and the beat goes on, gotta Use it Up and Wear It Out.

I said

1  2  3 shake your body down

My Pop Life #189 : Lost In Music – Sister Sledge

Lost In Music – Sister Sledge

we’re Roxy Music caught in a trap no turning back

we’re Roxy Music

Yes confession time as I count down the days towards my 60th birthday.  To be filed alongside My Pop Life #11 where I discussed the merits of the Bay City Rollers having decided after listening to 2 uncredited radio minutes that I liked them.  This one is perhaps more embarrassing, perhaps more forgivable.   Perhaps not.

Spring 1979.  My final term at LSE.  Living in Honor Oak, SE23 with Mike Hil and Rosie (see My Pop Life #151).  Very post-punk, my ears were switching from Talking Heads to The Undertones, Teddy Pendergrass to Elvis Costello, Donna Summer (On The Radio) to The Specials.   Just around the corner was Off The Wall, one of the greatest records of the 20th century, Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones re-writing the rules of dance.  The sound on the streets of London was no longer punk, the three-chord snotty-nosed kids had grown up and were playing reggae and funk covers.  London’s Calling was a long way from The Clash’s first LP.  And coinciding with punk rock subsuming into the mainstream was the disco backlash.  But not in London.  London was always open-minded about music I’d like to think, and my brother Paul had always sought out nightclubs on weekends and had a special penchant for Disco music, right from it’s early days in 1975, when it wasn’t called Disco, just dance music – I’m thinking of Barry White, The O’Jays Love Train, Fatback’s The Spanish Hustle, and George McCrae’s Rock Your Baby.  Not to mention the great Johnny Bristol.

1975 had been the year of the fifth and last Roxy Music LP – entitled Siren, it contained mighty smash hit Love Is The Drug, and extended triptych song Sentimental Fool which Paul had suggested in a Roxy Music competition for Smash Hits (perhaps) was their greatest song, giving reasons why of course.  He won that competition and my respect and a complete set of Roxy Music LPs, which he already had. The band then announced that it was over and they split up.   Wow I hated that.  Bryan Ferry continued to produce solo LPs, using Roxy band members : guitarist Phil Manzanera, drummer Paul Thompson and sax player Andy Mackay on Let’s Stick Together, In Your Mind and in 1978 The Bride Stripped Bare (which is a tremendous record by the way).  Being a full-on dyed-in-the-wool Roxy Music fanclub member and aficionado I bought all of these without question, without reading the reviews in the music press, without any doubt that they would make me happy.  They kind of did, but not like a Roxy Music record would.  And pining for this great band to reconvene, I heard that in the spring of 1979 they were playing a more dance-oriented style, less rock, less art-rock, more r’n’b.  They’d gone disco!  They’d always changed up from album to album, but this was tantalising!

Then listening to the radio one day I heard “We’re Roxy Music” clearly being sung by women over a disco beat, but in a very laid-back way.  “Caught in a trap.  No turning back.”  It was catchy, bouncy, smooth.  There was an itchy rhythm guitar scratching over a bubbling bassline and and eight-count hi-hat.  “We’re Roxy Music”.  And pretty weird too, singing the name of the band like that, like an advert.  Post modern and typically art-school pretension, I thought.  I liked it.  No.  I flippin’ LOVED IT.  What a rhythm guitar lick! How the beat slides behind itself on every turnaround!   The bass line was speaking to me!  IT WAS PERFECT!

IT JUST WASN’T ROXY MUSIC! YOU DICK!

WOW.  Disappointed and embarrassed as I was to learn that it wasn’t my heroes performing some arch all-knowing song with tongue firmly planted in cheek and that it was in fact an American group called Sister Sledge singing about being lost in music.  Which I clearly also was.   Without a paddle.  In fact Roxy Music had reformed and their new LP Manifesto was released that autumn of 1979 along with hit single Dance Away which was a dance-floor filler but even so.  Even so.

The shame can only now be shared.  Luckily I have recovered and the song Lost In Music hooked its way into my subconscious and my legs and it is an irresistible moment in any party or nightclub.  It is a disco classic and I love it.  It reminds me of Off The Wall from the same era – the idea of leaving your 9-5 up on the shelf and getting out on the dance floor was just as radical as any punk stance.  And of course we are now told by pop historians that disco was black, gay, female, latino and revolutionary and everyone remembers – something.  Not me because I wasn’t there.  I was walking outside in eye make-up and ripped jeans and dyed hair.  But disco music was huge alongside my punk era, largely indulged through my brother’s taste.  He was right.  He was being supported and acknowledged in his own identity while simultaneously discovering the idea of being Lost In Music.   Lose Yourself To Dance as Daft Punk (with Nile Rogers) encouraged us to do in 2015.   It is a fantastic musical form and will stand the test of time against any other pop trend of the last 70 years.  For me personally I have become fonder and fonder of Disco music as I’ve grown older.

But it has always been my favourite music to dance to  – along with ska.  I just always liked the groove, the beat.  The arrangement.  Like a jigsaw puzzle.  The syncopation. The timing.  All of it.  Many memories of dancing in formation with Millie, Jenny, Mandy and others to Odyssey, The Bee Gees or Michael Jackson.  Or of course Chic, the genius pair behind this song.

Chic was Nile Rogers and Bernard Edwards, rhythm guitar and bass, songwriters from New York City, the heart of disco in 1976.  Rahter incredibly I recently learned that Nile Rogers was partly inspired by seeing Roxy Music live in 1975 to form Chic.  Without getting into the whole history of disco, it was he who heard Donna Summer’s Love To Love You Baby in a discotheque getting mixed by the DJ into the next track amid a heaving multi-racial gay/straight dance floor mix all in a trance pulsing to the beat.  He was sold.  The heart beats at 60-90 bpm while at rest, but once you’re in the club and the DJ puts on Sister Sledge you fill find your heartbeat going up to around 120bpm, and many disco records are around this pulse.

Off The Wall – 119 bpm

You Should Be Dancing – 123 bpm

Le Freak – 120bpm

Don’t Leave Me This Way (Thelma Houston) – 121bpm

I Will Survive – 117bpm

Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground) – 118bpm

We Are Family – 119bpm

Maybe this is why these records – and my disco playlist – is perfect for a morning workout and stretch, pilates, weights, floor crunches and so on.  The body understands the beat, the gentle acceleration is what it needs each day to get the blood flowing round.  So for the last couple of years Jenny and I have put on either a reggae playlist  – also with a friendly bpm – or the classic disco playlist.  Usually my favourite record is Odyssey’s Use It Up, Wear It Out but that will have to wait for a more pure day.  This post has mainly been about the humiliation, the embarrassment, the acceptance.

In 2012 I read a book called 33 & a third Revolutions by Dorian Lynskey which was a history of the protest song from Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit to American Idiot by Green Day, covering civil rights, gay disco, anti-war songs, riot grrl and punk.  If he updated the book it would have to include Russia’s Pussy Riot and something from the grime scene, but I loved it (of course) and got in touch with the writer.  We had lunch in Groucho one day in 2012 and talked about the possibility of making a documentary based on the book.  Neither of us had ever made a documentary before of course.  But enthusiasm is all, and over the next few weeks we produced a pitch document.  The key to getting it made was asking Public Enemy frontman Chuck D to do the voice-over, or maybe even front up the doc, take us through the protest song.  Fight The Power (My Pop Life #61) was one of the songs in the book.

It won’t surprise you that much to know that the documentary remains unmade as I type.  But in November that year Dorian – who lives in London and writes music reviews and interviews with singers and bands for a living – put up on Facebook a spare ticket to Chic that night, playing in Kentish Town at the Forum.  I’d never seen them, and it was time.  We met nearby and went in.  Bernie Edwards had died in 1996 but there was Nile playing that scratchy catchy insistent rhythm guitar – that signature sound.  It was an incredible gig – the sound was perfect, and Rogers played us through his repertoire, not just Chic’s Everybody Dance, I Want Your Love and Le Freak but also Sister Sledge’s He’s The Greatest Dancer AND We Are Family, Bowie’s Let’s Dance, Diana Ross’ Upside Down, and cherry icing on the cake of love, Sheila E. Devotion’s wonderful single Spacer, all songs produced by Nile Rogers & Bernie Edwards and often written by them too, mainly after the Disco Sucks backlash, a racist homophobic spasm in the summer of 1979 that shames the perpetrators.   At the finale of the gig Chic played monster song Good Times with that massive bassline which kickstarted hip-hop and invited people onto the stage.  I walked to the front but stood in front of a speaker and danced with glazed eyes in a happy trance.  I both wanted and didn’t want to be onstage at that point.

They didn’t play Lost In Music which has a bpm of 114, representing a very slightly laid-back groove but nevertheless still an insistent disco heartbeat rhythm.   Sister Sledge themselves are from Philadelphia, the daughters of Broadway people and Debbie, Joni, Kim and Kathy really are Family – they’re sisters, naturally.  How extremely odd that I should mistake their close harmony vocal for that of Bryan Ferry, presumably buried in the mix in my foolish analysis.   Or perhaps not – they’re not so very different.  But disco had the last laugh, and in no way does it suck.  It never did.  I remain, as ever, Lost In Music.   Joni Sledge passed away this year aged 60 of unknown causes.

The music is my salvation

Joni Sledge sings lead :

 

My Pop Life #121 : Don’t Make Me Wait Too Long – Roberta Flack

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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.

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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.

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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…

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The Scala Cinema, Tottenham St W1, 1979-81

First – speed.  Amphetamine sulphate.  I’d been dealing it and taking it before Mexico and had 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.

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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.

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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.

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Donny Hathaway

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.

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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).  

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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

My Pop Life #72 : La Vie En Rose – Grace Jones

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La Vie En Rose   –   Grace Jones

Quand il me prend dans ses bras
Il me parle tout bas
je vois la vie en rose
Il me dit des mon amour
des mots de tous le jours
Et ca me fait quelques choses…

*

When he takes me in his arms
and speaks softly to me 
 life is a bed of roses…

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Lyrics were written by Edith Piaf in French, covered by many many singers.  An early English translation didn’t attempt to find an apt phrase for “La Vie En Rose” – literally Life In Pink.  My own attempt is above – life as a bed of roses.  I see life as rosy ?  Rose-tinted spectacles?  We don’t have an idiom which translates.   Here’s the English-language version – by Louis Armstrong for example, not translating the untranslatable :

When you kiss me heaven sighs
And though I close my eyes
I see la vie en rose.

Featured imageGrace Jones sang it in French on her first LP Portfolio in 1977.   The 12″ 7-minute single version was released in October and became her first international hit.   It has a short english verse in the middle : la vie en rose becomes “everything is lovely“.   I’ll always associate this song with the 80s though, with my brother Paul and the London gay scene.  In fact it was re-released about four times until it finally became a big hit in the UK as a double-A side in 1985 with “Pull Up To The Bumper”.

Paul and I got separated in Mexico in 1980 when I contracted Hepatitus B and after week of terrible kidney pain, sweats, vomiting and fever I went jaundice-yellow and weak as a kitten.  All the kids in that Mexico city flat had to be isolated and inoculated and Paul was hunting for a flight home for me – BA said Heathrow doctors wouldn’t take me back, so he flew me KLM to Amsterdam and then London.  Straight to the doctors, who put me straight into Coppett’s Wood Hospital for Infectious Diseases near Muswell Hill.  I had my own room, and nurses would come in with masks and gloves and trays of food.  I was there for weeks.  Sick and weak as a puppy. One day a letter appeared from Mexico from Paul.  I was very happy to receive it as our glamourous trip down the gringo trail to Argentina was now well and truly off, but he was still going on, alone.  The letter was astounding, wonderful, life-changing.  It said that having reached San Cristobal Las Casas  Paul had met an American man called Jim and after a long night and day climbing the hills alone Paul had walked into town, met Jim, got together and they were now lovers.  Paul was in love, for the first time, with a man.

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Wow.  I often wondered after that whether that would have happened if I’d stayed in Mexico and not caught Hep B.  Whether Paul would have met Jim, have fallen in love.  Before that point, Paul was not acknowledging himself as gay.   So neither was anyone else.  Since that moment, he has.   And the family acknowledged it in their own time.  Another story.   It was a true turning point.  Jim and Paul travelled further south to Guatemala and Belize, then went back to Jim’s apartment in Alphabet City on the Lower East Side of Manhattan until the spring of 1981 when they had a big fight and Paul flew back to London.  I hadn’t seen him for almost a year.  We ended up squatting together in a council flat just off the Holloway Road with boarded up windows and no heating (see My Pop Life #120 ).  We got burgled too while there.  Then I moved back in with Mumtaz in Finsbury Park and he found a place further down Blackstock Road.  At that point Paul was going out with Michael.  Sweet curly-haired working class guy from Essex.  Then there was Pedro – still my friend – from Kilburn with Dominican mum, and then Colin from Durham, again still mine and Jenny’s (and Paul’s!) good friend.  Big relationships which sustained and still do.   The gay scene is very supportive and constructive in that way.

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Of course the early 80s was when AIDS struck and devastated everyone, Section 28 – (eventually passed in 1988 and repealed in 2003) stated that “a local authority shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality”.   My friend Nick Partridge (from Tower Mansions, West End Lane)  came back from living on a houseboat in Amsterdam and joined the Terrence Higgins Trust, later to become the Director, be knighted and generally join the anti-establishment establishment.    Paul’s gang of gay friends became solid and established, and become the legendary Get You Crew which survives to this day – Lady G, or Richard Davies, Max, Hugh & Ben, Ray & Tim, Colin, Michael, and many others – and sometimes I would join them on a night out, or round The Fallen Angel in Islington.   (Later Jenny would be found in The Fallen Angel when she worked at Theatre Centre with all the lesbians).

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I went to Heaven a few times with the gang underneath the arches of Charing Cross Station.   I’ve been to Heaven with Jenny too, in the 90s and it’s always a good night.  Other definitely gay places I’d been in with Paul and others in those 1980s would be The Vauxhall Tavern,  and of course The London Apprentice in Hoxton filming on The Crying Game with every transvestite in the South East of England.   Can’t remember if Paul came down for any of that.  I’m thinking Marc Almond and Jimmy Somerville, George O’ Dowd, Stephen Wakelam, Ian McKellen, the Scala All-Nighter and the ridiculous slightly baggy yet tapered clothes I started to adopt in the mid-eighties not to mention the haircuts, the shoes.  Chinese kung-fu slippers I recall.  I was never gay though.  I kissed Richard one night at some houseparty in Belsize Park, but that was fun, a tease and that was it.   Gay people like getting off with straight people though.  They like a challenge.

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But the thing is with Paul, you’d never know he was gay unless you knew.  So we’d just as often go to The Flask or The French House or Camden Lock, Dingwalls, the Princess Louise, The Lamb.  Paul never wore the badge of gay, or particularly enjoyed the scene – it has its own pressures.   But things were different then.  It was fifteen or so years since Stonewall, but there was always a sense of resilience, of defiance even, going out as a gang in the 80s, part of being young probably.  But also part of being a community under threat, both legally and actually, the possibility of aggression at street level always present, living in Thatcher’s Britain we were in opposition and everything was a battle, sometimes literally.   The Miner’s Strike, Anti-Apartheid, the poll-tax, section 28, Greenham Common, the Women’s Movement, Chile, Ireland, Gay Liberation, CND – these were all part of the same battle to change the world.   Some of those battles we won – South Africa, Gay Lib, Ireland? – some we lost – the miners, CND, Greenham.    I think it was Jesse Jackson who I heard talking about a rainbow coalition, co-opting the gay emblem – every colour of the rainbow except pink!    I guess drugs were taken, but I was generally on the weed, speed or booze.  Never really liked cocaine, or the effect it has on some of the people I’m with.  Or poppers.   Not really a pillhead after Mexico. E was great.  But a glass of bubbly and a cigarette and I’m delirious, usually.

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This song was a floor-filler.  An anthem.  It always has been, since Edith Piaf sang it in Paris in 1946, the lyrics a defiant triumphant claiming of the power of love, a beating heart, being in the pink, the rosy life, none of the translations work do they ?   There was a Pink Paper.  A pink pound.  Pink triangle from the nazi camps wasn’t it?  Another sign co-opted.   At house-parties or nightclubbing the hands would rise, the room would spin, the euphoria would go up several notches, we were alive.    This song is marvellous, so French, so black, so disco, so bossa nova, so gay, so theatrical, so triumphant, so universal.  Mon couer qui bat……

(Look it up !)

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At the end of the decade July 1989 I was in Paris, filming a Chopin film called “Impromptu” with Hugh Grant, Judy Davis, Bernadette Peters, Mandy Patinkin  and others, and a splendid time was guaranteed for all.  (see the Chopin post My Pop Life #9)   Hugh and I waltzed around the brasseries, the train appeared to carry some gravy.   One night Julian Sands and I went to a club – or was it a party ? – and met Grace Jones and some other glamourous Parisiens.  We drank champagne, I smoked cigarettes. Possibly even French ones.

 La Vie En Rose indeed.