My Pop Life #235 : You’ve Got A Friend – James Taylor

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You’ve Got A Friend   –   Carole King

close your eyes and think of me

*

I wrote this diary excerpt when I was hitch-hiking around North America with my friend Simon (referenced in My Pop Life #130).   We celebrated my 19th birthday in Santa Fe with tequila shots, salt & lime til dawn, a reasonably appropriate celebration I think, then hitch-hiked for a couple of days through Navajo Nation and the stunning red rock towers of Monument Valley eventually getting to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon where we pitched our tent.  Then a wonderful moment happened.  The VW camper van next door had two lovely American fellas our age.  Darrell & Sam struck up conversation.   They were going to Las Vegas too – but via Zion National Park, and Bryce Canyon.  Four wonderful days and nights, backgammon and weed and music as I recall.   Across the desert.  Then we finally got to Las Vegas.  No indication of the drama which was to unfold.  Now read on dot dot dot

*

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Thursday July 2nd 1976 9pm

So here we are at last – in the gambling capital of the world. Everything is open 25 hours a day, and there’s only one thing to do – spend money.  Characteristically, Simon and I decide to avoid doing that, and manage fairly well.  We arrive in Las Vegas mid-afternoon and check into a hotel on the Strip which offers us “casino packages“.  You can find these deals all over the city and for 100 miles outside – free meal tickets, free drinks, free chips and nickels and free souvenirs – like miniature one-armed bandits (I shamelessly acquire one).

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After a magnificent cold shower, we brave the heat – 110 in the shade – and armed with hundreds of “good deals” we move out.  Fourteen hours later, we stare blankly at one another from our beds, shattered and amazed.  Now I really know what it’s like to have a night on the town, and watch the orangey-pink dawn at 5.30 in the morning over Sunrise Mountain.  I know what the town is too.  The whole of our stay here is like a dream – Vegas is a very unreal and surreal place, a neon city which becomes very beautiful at night.  The Stardust, Caesar’s Palace, Sahara and The Dunes have the most spectacular 100-foot neon displays on the boulevard advertising their casinos.  And inside, the sight that hits you between the eyes is also out of a dream.  In the large casinos there are literally acres of fruit machines, rows of blackjack tables, roulette, craps and baccarat.  Watching it all go on is an entertainment in itself – the people here are incredible, ranging from very rich, slick tuxedos and evening dresses through middle-aged T-shirts and fat women mindlessly feeding machines, to scruffy jeans and sneakers.  They’re all here to feed Vegas in one form or another with their money.  The fruit machines which surround everything and populate every bar gobble up nickels, dimes, quarters & silver dollars, and occasionally, with a loud noise, spit some back.  It is noticeable that the machines are very noisy when they pay out, and very quiet when they’re emptying your pockets – thus if a casino has enough machines, somebody somewhere will be winning noisily giving the impression that the machines are constantly paying out.

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The noise inside a casino is unbelievable – there are six or seven different layers -soft music, bells, chinking coins, rattles, dealer’s calls, very loud weird noises and the constant sound of money.  Money is the only criteria here – the only one. You are either rich, or poor and that is it – you are not good-looking, nice, friendly, nasty or affected – just rich or poor.  We are poor.  But we have a great time.  Although it is an entertainment watching the types of people and the neon and the roulette, you can only watch for two minutes then it sucks you in and you are not in control.  Luckily we have enough free nickels & tokens to play with and we spend very little of our own money.  And in fact, we do very well, walking into a casino, getting a bunch of free tokens, winning, and then walking out two bucks up, resisting the urge to gamble with it.

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We get a free stew and endless beers at Mr Sy’s, a hot dog and coffee at Foxy’s, nickels at The Sahara, nothing at Honest John’s, champagne and tokens at El Morocco, and nickels and endless champagne at King 8 which is connected to our hotel and thus gives us Good Deals.  The casinos own smaller casinos, hotels & snack bars and also have deals going with gas stations so that the whole city is a web which catches you wherever you happen to be in it. But I love it and I am definitely coming back here with some money.  [And I did – see My Pop Life #230 deja vu country songs in Vegas].  What better way to lose money – it is basically worthless stuff anyway – and the attitude of play the game easy come easy go is a healthy one – it is how money should be treated.  What a place !

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By midnight we are totally blammed on champagne from King 8, where we have been insanely giggling for two hours, imagining going back to the hotel for our traveller’s cheques and gambling everything, being in the limelight at the centre of the game at Caesar’s Palace for half and hour, then thumbing back to DC to stay at the Furth’s while we wait for September 19th, broke.  We imagined the story :

Well, we got as far as Las Vegas…

And believe me, it would be so easy to do. We are tottering along the Strip towards Caesar’s harbouring the sexy rich lady fantasy when we are picked up by two girls in a jeep, unattractive and poor [who need us with our fake IDs to go and buy whisky for them the legal age being 21].  By now however, we are helpless and “nobody knows” – that is to say the conversations are

“Where do you want to go?”       ” don’t know”

“What do you want to do?”        “don’t know”

“What’s your name?”             “don’t know, etc”

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We smoke some grass and find ourselves in a kiddies playground on slides and climbing bars.  The stars are stupendous.  We decide to go for a swim, yet upon reaching a pool everyone denies that they agreed.  We head once again for Caesar’s Palace.  It is enormous inside, very plush and attractive and fairly crowded even though it is by now about 2.30am.  We then go to The MGM another enormous casino with fountains and mirrors in the ceilings and tuxedoed croupiers.  Trying to park, we crash into a brand new Porsche and subsequently spend the next hour in the MGM car park arguing with a reactionary bastard from Denver, waiting for the police, and pouring whisky onto each other’s heads. [None of the drivers present were sober it has to be recorded].

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We eventually get into The MGM at 4am and walk about zombie-like, staring with blank faces at the glitter and cash around us. We go all the way to the back of the casino and there is a huge shopping mall with very expensive diamonds, minks of orange hue, fox-furs and absurd paintings.  These shops are where you spend your winnings, all owned by the casino, so naturally they get all your money back.

Of course!

After an hour or so of total surreal weirdness (we are here, now, doing this…) we become aware of a sensation within each one of us that we identify as hunger. Breakfast!

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We stagger into yet another casino as the dawn spreads over the pinkish sky above Sunrise Mountains, and the neon sign outside The Dunes is switched off until the next sunset.  A 77 c breakfast of eggs, hash browns, bacon and coffee is eaten in total darkness because the electrical operators are going slow – giving the casinos half hour blackouts every now and then : naturally we have arrived in that half hour.  I am at the stage where I could believe anything, and frequently do.  Still mindlessly tipping whisky down our throats we decide again to go for a swim, so everyone changes and meets at the pool in the girl’s hotel.

The night ends badly though as one of the girls falls off the diving board onto the concrete and is badly bruised, and I come as close to death as I have ever been, or will ever be likely to without actually dying.  In 9 feet of water I suddenly lose confidence and my muscles refuse to work.  I sink like a stone, don’t touch the bottom and come up, gasping for breath and immediately sink again, swallowing water.  With horror I realise that I am now drowning and there is nothing I can do about it.  Some distant memory of “when you go down the third time you don’t come up“.  I come up for the second time and Simon recognises that I am in big trouble.  [Later he tells me that he forgot the diving girl’s name and rather than shout “OI” which he felt was rude, he dived in to get me himself].  I see him swimming towards me through mouthfuls of water and gulps of air as my arms and legs are thrashing about – I don’t want to drown, I really don’t.  It seems to take Simon hours to reach me and then I immediately grab him somewhere, anywhere and we both go down, me for the third time, him for the first.  For one horrible moment I am so close to dying that I can feel it, a cold presence, a ghastly sensation.  I see angels I see a coffin flying back to England on a plane,  a school assembly where my name is read out, a funeral But this is not my time and we both come up, and somehow Simon takes me to the edge.  I cling gratefully to the side, gasping painfully and fast, but alive.  We are both in a bad state of shock, and the girls drive us back to our room, once we have partially recovered.  We eventually sleep at 11am, through til 7 in the evening when we get up, go and eat, and return.  It is now 10pm in the evening – we plan on leaving very early tomorrow to avoid the ridiculously hot weather, thumbing to Los Angeles.

The last 30 hours are a blur, a dream, an unreality lit by neon and flashing lights, a whirl of chinking coins, rolling dice, aces, jacks and queens, oranges and plums, tuxedos diamonds champagne and a brush with death.

*

Simon saved my life I have no doubt about that.  Rather odd that I didn’t write that phrase into the diary at the time.  Shock.  Even two days later, writing about the day – I reckon this was written once we’d arrived in Los Angeles at Nick Carr’s parent’s place in Monterey Park.  The part I missed is the part I almost always missed in the diary of that road trip – the sexual exploits.  Once we’d got back to the hotel it was decided that Simon and Diving Girl would take the room, and Ralph and short-haired girl would wait in the Jeep. I think we kissed for a bit but that was it, we didn’t really fancy each other.  After two hours I got to crash out when Diving Girl came out and the girls drove off waving.   We never saw them again. 

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I’m writing this on Monday 20th April 2020 in Brooklyn, the epicentre of the coronavirus covid 19 pandemic with death all around us, hundreds of people every day pass over, old people, young people, nurses, cooks, cleaners, bus drivers, policemen and women, grandparents, asthmatics, care-home workers, immigrants, musicians, retired insurance brokers, lawyers, teachers, doctors, physios. 

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Jenny my wife is asthmatic and doesn’t go out at all.  She isn’t taking any risks.  I do the shopping and the bins, the prescriptions, the bread, the cheese the oranges.  We have both become obsessed with oranges.  I have disposable gloves and a mask which purports to be N95 but actually isn’t I don’t think.  I can smell weed when I cycle past the youth.  We line up outside Trader Joe six feet apart and go into a quiet supermarket walking gently around sourcing our priority produce, then pack out bags ourselves and walk the Citibike back home with the absurdly heavy shopping, remove shoes before entering, unpeel vinyl gloves into the trash, wash hands thoroughly, take bleach wipes and disinfect every single item as it comes out of the shopping bag, disinfect the handles, the taps, the phone, the glasses, the mask, my eyeballs.

We’ve been back to Las Vegas numerous times since then, but I never seriously took up gambling as a past-time.  See My Pop Life #230.  I still live a charmed life, and have at least one other serious near-death experience to relate.  South Africa 2010.  I’ll do it next. 

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The LP Tapestry by songwriting genius Carole King (Natural Woman, It Might As Well Rain Until September, The Locomotion, Pleasant Valley Sunday, Up On The Roof, Will You Love Me Tomorrow) is one of the greatest ever made, and this – You’ve Got A Friend – is the stand-out song for me.  Many have covered it – notably Donny Hathaway & James Taylor, and I have chosen Mr Taylor’s sweet cover since that was the song Simon and I would have listened to in 1974-5.   It helps I guess that when I met Jenny and we started dating, one of the things that made me fall in love with her was that she could sign the lyrics to this song, and still can.  But today this song is for Simon, my closest friend, my dearest companion, my life-saver, my brother.

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

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That’s The Way Love Goes – Merle Haggard

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

*

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Any excuse to post a photograph of my Lincoln Continental 

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

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

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Luxor Hotel and Casino on the Strip, Las Vegas

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

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

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

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

Las Vegas, Nevada, USA, The Strip

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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