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 of 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 :

 

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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 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.

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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 I flew KLM to Amsterdam and flew a short flight back.  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.  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.  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.