My Pop Life #218 : Bad ‘N’ Ruin – The Faces

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Bad ‘n’ Ruin  –  The Faces

Mother don’t you recognise your son?

*

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A battered dog-eared copy of Long Player by The Faces sits upright on the floor resting on the wedge of other battered and dog-eared LPs, in no order, just a stack for flicking through.  Elton John is in there, Jimi Hendrix, The Pretty Things, Cream, King Crimson, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Simon & Garfunkel. Dr John.   I was 14 and a half going on 15 and I was sitting cross-legged in my friend Simon’s bedroom, flicking, flicking.  Stuff I’d never heard of.  The Incredible String Band.  Stuff I didn’t like the sound of.  Humble Pie.  Stuff I liked – The Faces.  Damn what a band.  I knew the singer Rod Stewart from his number one hit singles (all with The Faces but credited to Rod Stewart) Maggie May, Stay With Me and You Wear It Well.  He was impossibly cool – relaxed, confident, cheeky, couldn’t care less.  Husky voice. Feathered haircut around his cheek bones, satin scarf, flares, cuban heels.  The rest of the band also couldn’t care less but were the coolest band I’d ever seen.  The Beatles always looked hyper-aware of their status as cultural leaders, and by now – 1971 – they’d split up, leaving a bewildered scene behind them as the pop landscape fragmented and rebuilt itself.  A moment acknowledged on the last track of Long Player – as a live recording catches Rod Stewart saying “Here’s a tune you may well know, may not know, but if you don’t know it, I really don’t know where you been“.  And they break into the mighty ‘Maybe I’m Amazed‘ from McCartney’s first solo album.  Suddenly The LP was everything, the single was losing its grip on the teen population as Pink Floyd, Genesis and Led Zeppelin started to indulge their musical whims and song lengths were stretching.  Some of these bands didn’t release singles. 1970s singles were of course at least as good as the 1960s crop – Gamble & Huff’s Philly Empire, 10cc, Elton John, Al Green, Bowie, T. Rex, Rod Stewart and all of the pop kings & queens of my youth, but the fact remains that Sgt Pepper changed the pop landscape and all bands poured energy into the LP from that point.  Long Player dated from 1970, I discovered it a couple of years later.

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The Rainbow public house, Lewes High Street

The Faces were a band I just wished I was in.  They enjoyed themselves in an obviously infectious way, they genuinely liked each other I was sure.  They liked beer too which was important to me – I was by now drinking cider and beer.  Not in the pub – no, I couldn’t get in – but in the Magic Circle, too young to go into the pub and order a guinness & blackcurrant, lager & lime or pernod & orange.  We’d ask an older boy to buy us a quart bottle at the off-licence and carry it through the twitten and up the steps behind The Rainbow, where the bikers and greasers drank.  John Whippy (a white boy who had a ‘fro) Pete Davis & John Mote, Andrew Ranken and Simon’s sister Deborah Korner – all one or two giant years older than us.  The jukebox in The Rainbow was legendary but that would have to wait.  They were groovy older people with scruffy hair and gypsy-styled clothes.  They actually resembled The Faces come to think about it.

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Ian McLagan, Ron Wood, Ronnie Lane, Rod Stewart, Kenney Jones – The Faces

We were thirteen.  This does segue-way with an earlier story (My Pop Life #84) a small gang of urchins sat by Lewes Castle on a stone semi-circular seat under some trees passing the cider bottle and smoking Number 6 cigarettes.  Teenage laughter and giggles as we quickly got drunk on Woodpecker or Bulmers Cider.  Me, Pete Smurthwaite, Chris Clark, Conrad Ryle, Jon Foreman, Martin Elkins,  Simon Korner, Andrew Taylor, Adrian Birch, or any combination of these. We would just chat.  No portable music players then.  Music was for rooms.  Rooms were for smoking in.  We would wait our turn.  But in the meantime we could sit in Simon’s or Pete’s or Conrad’s bedroom and listen to records.  It was the main past-time of our teen years.  Playing football, listening to albums, drinking, smoking. Eventually girls.

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Ronnie Wood & Rod Stewart, early 70s

I did eventually buy this record but not until I left Lewes and went up to London for University in 1976.  It’s a wonderful piece of work – loose but tight, boogie-rock with mandolins and a Hammond organ, expressive and rhythmically funky and so full of character.  The Faces were formed out of The Small Faces who had produced a handful of explosive singles in the late 1960s – Tin Soldier, Lazy Sunday, Itchycoo Park – all with the incredible voice of Steve Marriott, a raspy bluesy rock voice that compelled attention.  When he left the band to form Humble Pie, the remaining members – Ian McLagan on keys, Kenney Jones on drums and Ronnie Lane on bass, joined with Rod Stewart & Ron Wood of The Jeff Beck Group to form The Faces.  They fitted perfectly.  The Faces made four albums together – Long Player was the 2nd – but by 1971 Rod Stewart was already making solo LPs, with the Faces as his backing band.  Then they became Rod Stewart & The Faces.  It almost goes without saying.  Ever-present on Top of the Pops, they effortlessly bestrode my impressionable years as the grooviest people and the best band in the universe.  The women in Rod’s lyrics were often older than him :

“the morning sun when it’s in your face really shows your age, but that don’t worry me none in my eyes you’re everything”

a face like that you got nothin’ to laugh about….red lips, hair & fingernails, they say you’re a mean old Jezebel”

“a little old-fashioned but that’s all right”

and he’s often waking up next to them. But he sees them as real women, with power over him, he spars with them.  Women loved him, but then so did men.

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I was lucky enough to see the group at Reading Festival in 1972 when they headlined on Saturday night, August 12th.  It was an eclectic selection of music that now reads like a who’s who of groovers, including Matching Mole (see My Pop Life #202), ELO AND WIZZARD !!!, Focus (see My Pop Life #103), Genesis with Peter Gabriel singing and Welsh band Man.  The Faces with Rod : that night spiritual leader Ronnie Lane wasn’t present and Tetsu was on bass.  They were simply awesome, playing Memphis, Miss Judy’s Farm, Angel, Stay With Me, True Blue, I’d Rather Go Blind, Too Bad, That’s All You Need, (I Know) I’m Losing You – and an encore – Twistin’ The Night Away/Every Picture Tells A Story, then finally Maggie May.  There is a bootleg of the gig recorded by a photographer from the pit which is very good apparently.  I was drunk and stoned and quite smelly having not washed since Thursday.  I think I was with Martin Cooper and Adrian Birch.  It was the year when John Peel was DJing between bands and on the Sunday he introduced us to Roxy Music, playing the mighty single Virginia Plain and changing my life forever, although I was not to know this yet.

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Rod Stewart aficionados – and we are legion – will know the classic Python Lee Jackson single In A Broken Dream which he sang at a session in the late sixties for a set of car-seat covers apparently.  Wonderful.  I’m also very fond of You Wear It Well and his Tim Hardin cover Reason To Believe, as is Paul Weller.  I heard about this somehow and convinced Paul to cover the song for my film New Year’s Day (see My Pop Life #90) which I haven’t discussed in much depth to be fair.  Yet.

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And his first few solo LPs really were remarkably good, with backing by The Faces before he famously left the UK and The Faces behind with Atlantic Crossing in 1975 with a slow side and a fast side and I Don’t Want To Talk About It and Sailing as the big-selling singles, recorded with three-quarters of Booker T & the MGs.  Stewart was also quick to blame Harold Wilson, British Prime Minister for a top rate of tax of 83% – although you had to be earning a large whack to have it apply to you.  He both won and lost a number of fans, which happened in the 1970s to many artists, the concept of “selling out” was still currency back then.  I still have a soft spot for the old fucker, but I preferred his work with the band who backed him in the early 1970s.

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Ronnie Lane was the first to leave in 1973 and they never really recovered.  Japanese bass player Tetsu Yamauchi replaced him, although strangely, having checked all the dates, Tetsu was playing the Reading Festival gig in August 1972, a year earlier.  Ronnie Wood joined the Rolling Stones in 1975, and Kenney Jones replaced Keith Moon in The Who after the drummer’s death from alcoholism-related drugs in 1978.  Ian MacLagan moved to the USA and continued performing and writing.  From time to time the lads would reform and play at special occasions.  No hard feelings.  Rock royalty all right.

The LP Long Player wears well and has stayed with me (is this a dreadful Faces pun sentence yet?) – although this dates to the vinyl age because I only ever listened to Side One which opens with that cracking tune Bad’N’Ruin.    Eventually I chose Bad ‘N’ Ruin as the music on my second Showreel proper.  The first one had Mahler’s 4th Symphony (see My Pop Life #62) a lush yearning romantic sweep that is possibly a little OTT, but hey, “You Got ta Put It Out There” as Sam Jackson once said on the set of Phantom Menace.

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So when I came to re-shoot and re-edit the greatest hits reel*, sometime in 2005-6 and beyond, updating it every so often, I needed some new music.  I didn’t worry about it for too long and went with The Faces because there’s something about the bounce and chop of the rhythm – Ronnie Lane on bass – Kenny Jones on drums – and Ron Wood bending the strings to get that blues shriek – oh and the line

Mother don’t you recognise your son?

which appealed to my strange sense of self.  Although the song is about (I think) a burglar going home to his mum (?), I turned it into an actor imagining his mum watching him on TV.   How ya like me now?  Given that I am a confirmed character actor now, an accent collector, enjoying the twists and turns of a rogue’s gallery of types and n’er-do-wells, it seemed appropriate.  But beneath this superficial and admittedly wrong reading of the song was I suspect a deeper sub-conscious impulse, and an even more backwards interpretation.  It was my song of escape from home, for I had joined the circus and run away. It is still my showreel music.

*With thanks to Richard Vaux and Take Five Studios in London’s Beak Street.

The record :

live on TV in 1971 :

 

the showreel :

https://vimeo.com/328316053

 

 

 

My Pop Life #214 : Belle – Al Green

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Belle   –   Al Green

Belle….it’s you that I want, but it’s him that I need

A song which turns the history of African American music on its head, the rhythm & blues universe being filled with gospel singers who turned to secular music, including Sam Cooke, Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, Toni Braxton, Sam & Dave and James Ingram – to name but a few – here however, a soul man from Memphis has found Jesus and started to sing gospel music.  I say ‘started’ because although he grew up in the gospel tradition, and had a group called the Greene Brothers in the late 50s with his brothers, he was kicked out of the band by his father when he was caught listening to Jackie Wilson.  The big sinner.  He wouldn’t sing gospel again for 20 years.  Belle is  lodged into my cortex as the great turning point in Al Green’s life when he renounced pop music and went back to God, as suggested in the line quoted above, but lodged in  my heart perhaps as something else.  Maybe I seek God in my life but, I’ve never been a religious man and this morning I felt it more likely that this refers to my need for a father figure?  Let’s explore that possibility for a minute.

Indeed it may in fact roll out to be the same thing.  Safety.  Arm around the shoulder.  Protection.  He knows best.  I must have felt some degree of this from my father for the first seven years of my life.  There he was, getting up, going to work, getting some bread in Portsmouth once he’d finished his English Degree at Cambridge.

where’s dad ?  Gone to work, get some bread

This was actually my first sentence, circa late 1958, according to mum.  He told us stories at bedtime, often made them up on the spot.  We had no idea – we being Paul and I who shared a bedroom.  Various creatures inhabited these stories – The Grimp and The Cahoodler spring out immediately although their shapes have always been blurry and indistinct.  They were cartoon animals though in my unformed mind.  We used to go on long walks together, always, and that continues to this very day when we see each other.  Nature, fresh air, leaves, butterflies, the sky, farms – all part of our shared experience.  Musically Dad never liked Pop Music so never joined in Mum’s and our dances in the kitchen or singing harmonies in the chorus in the living room.  If he was in a bad mood he’d walk in and turn it off and we’d all be sat on the settee and told to listen to Mozart or Beethoven and Paul would giggle first then Mum and we’d be ordered out, banished.  Banish. Ed.  I have some pictures of this era which was I guess 1957-1965.

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Cambridge 1958, Mum, Dad, me

When I look back on it all now, how lucky I am to be able to do this, my parents seem so ridiculously young.  How did they do it?  Three kids in the first six years of marriage.  It broke.  He strayed.  He moved out. I’ve told this story before.  But the thing is, emotionally, Dad became missing.  Never hugely physically affectionate in my memory at least, now he was out of the house, almost out of my life, and I missed him.  I’ve missed him ever since.

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But.  I’ve never really had a true father figure in my life since then.  Dad is still there, up in West Yorkshire with Beryl, and he and I have a good relationship, we speak fairly often.  So I don’t know if that is why I love this song.  It may seem like a long shot in the end, because there’s a lot deep yearning in there.  It doesn’t belong in Al Green’s gospel catalogue though, because it is still a sexual love song sung by a soul man.  The chords, the changes are fantastic.  Smoky, sultry, sexy even though he’s ultimately struggling with it.  Maybe that’s the twist for me – the magnetic attachment I have to the song, ie  maybe I’m gay !   Haha all theories welcome.

a)  I’m actually deeply religious just haven’t acknowledged it yet

b)  I’m gay, just haven’t acknowledged it yet

c)  I always needed a father figure, just haven’t acknowledged it yet

d)  It’s a sexy song, and I like sex, just haven’t acknowledged etc

e)  It’s a spiritual song, and it feeds my soul, just haven’t blah blah

f)  it’s a fine tune !!

g)  it is actually Al Green’s best performance on record

 

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                    Belle – The Lord and I have been friends for a mighty long time…               Belle – leaving him has never ever really crossed my mind

 

The Belle Album was released in 1977 just as punk was sweeping the UK and I was busy joining in (like a good law student).  I think I bought it after the gig though.  I was going steady with Mumtaz, and we were both fans of Al Green.  I wrote about the Damascene conversion I had in 1971 with Tired Of Being Alone on TOTP in My Pop Life #101.   By then my father had been gone for six years and was about to remarry and move to Yorkshire.   I was going to see Al Green with my girlfriend.  The gig was in The Venue, Victoria Street  and it was 1978.  It was a little like The Forum/Town & Country in Kentish Town, but we were sat at little tables which were spread around the downstairs – cabaret seating with waitresses and food.  Slightly raked seating?   It was actually a tremendous place to see someone live, but it didn’t last that long as a venue.  I did see Todd Rundgren there four nights running in 1978, which is pretty fanboy-esque, a series of gigs that became a live album called Back To The Bars.

I scarcely remember the Al Green gig except that it was exquisite. He had a kind of jumpsuit on as I recall, a cravat, and cuban heels. He sang all the greats, the  highlights were Love & Happiness, Tired Of Being Alone, Can’t Get Next To You, and this song Belle.  When he sang Let’s Stay Together he came down into the tables and chairs and distributed stem roses to us, holding the mic and singing to each table.  It was my first time seeing Al Green and it was extraordinary, but every time I’ve seen him since (about eight times) he always does this – walks down, touches people, sings to them, a ripple of excitement goes through the audience every time.  But in the end it’s the singing with Al.  The voice of course is extraordinary but it’s what he does with it, the turns of phrase, the whoops, the ad-libs, the phrasing, the grace notes, the pure inhabiting of every note in every song.  It all comes from within the great man’s soul.

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The song Belle is extraordinary.  You think it is finished as the music fades but he has a whole other level to go to, and he goes there.  He is testifying to us and his woman that he wants her more than she can imagine, but he needs The Lord even more than that.  And at that point in his life, he meant it.  Four years earlier, and for reasons that I have not fully understood, but reported to be his refusal to marry her (she was already married with children), his girlfriend Mary Woodson White had cooked a pan of grits (like semolina) and thrown them over him causing severe burns on his back and arms before shooting herself dead with his pistol.  A note in her purse gave the reasons.  After this a shocked & changed Al Green became ordained as a pastor, and even as his record sales were falling he was moving away from sexual music towards holy music, and a holy life.  Just after we saw him at The Venue he fell off a stage in early 1979 and took it as a sign that he had to change direction finally and forever. I was lucky to see him on the point of renouncing sinful music…

In the song we hear Al Green struggling with his love for a woman and sings at one point, about Jesus :

he’s my bright morning star

The Morning Star is of course the planet Venus, generally associated with the sacred feminine.  The other line that always pings out for me is :

“I know that you can understand a little country boy”

Al was born on a farm in Dansby, Arkansas in 1946 to a sharecroppers family.  I spent ten years in a small village called Selmeston in East Sussex, opposite a farm.  We used to help with the harvest in August.

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The next time Al Green  came to London it was with a gospel set and a huge choir, and none of his soul material got an airing, not even Belle.  This happened fairly regularly through the 80s, usually at Hammersmith Odeon.  The Reverend would always sing Let’s Stay Together (Jesus) though, often coming down into the crowd for that song, walking among us as it were, sometimes handing out roses.  I saw a fair number of these shows as an avowed atheist simply because he was my favourite singer in the world.  I once saw Kevin Rowland in the audience,  paying homage.  No one can touch Al frankly, not even Smokey Robinson, my other favourite, Otis Redding, or Queen Aretha may her soul rest in peace.  Al for me tops all of these.  Maybe Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (My Pop Life #136) would eventually nestle on the pinnacle, technique and passion to burn, but come on – I’d always choose Al Green to be honest.

It was in the late-eighties I guess (?) when Rita and I went to see Al Green at the Festival Hall – and he’d started putting some of the old soul classics back into the show after ten years and ten gospel albums. He sang Otis Redding‘s I’ve Been Loving You Too Long and Sam & Dave‘s Hold On I’m Coming (I think?) and one of his ? but I can’t remember which one, maybe the mighty Love & Happiness.  Over the next ten years he slowly left gospel music behind and started producing pure soul music again in 1995 with the album Your Heart’s In Good Hands which is magnificent, like a sigh of relief almost. On the track Love Is A Beautiful Thing  Al sings the words let’s stay together, cos I’m still in love with you, call me, for the good times, tired of being alone, here i am…  a veritable litany of the titles of his old soul hits which are clearly coming back through his nerve endings into his pores into his heart and out of his mouth.  The great return was a celebration – he is still a Reverend, but now he was back and singing everything.  Our friends Lynn and Tony saw him in Central Park in this period when the concert was almost rained off, then the clouds parted and a ray of sunshine struck Al Green directly centre stage and he announced he was going to sing Love and Happiness for the first time for years. Magical.

In 1988 I went on a long road trip across the USA from D.C. to Phoenix Arizona, written about in My Pop Life #148 .  On the way out west I stopped in Memphis for a day and hit up the various landmarks of that fine city : Graceland of course, the Lorraine Motel where a homeless lady gave me a history lesson, Beale Street where I got suckered, then the next morning driving down to Hale Road in South Memphis to find Al Green’s church, the one he bought as he was recovering from the burns.

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He wasn’t there, but I’d needed to set eyes upon the place which was his physical and spiritual base, especially since I’d just lost the bulk of my cash and was about to embark on a strange week of driving without money.

Then with Jenny in 1999 we would see Al Green at The Royal Albert Hall when Lucy was singing with support act Beverly Knight, later that year we travelled down to Glastonbury (not our only visit) and saw him there too.  Quite a contrast, or not.  Two great English cathedrals of music. Magnifique, as ever.   I think my favourite Al Green album (the one that gets the most plays = the favourite doesn’t it?) is Al Green Explores Your Mind from 1974.  It is perfect.  Has the songs Take Me To The River,  The City and Sha-La-La.  But he hasn’t made a duff album.

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I always call it “Al Green Explodes Your Mind”.   Which is a more accurate title.

The next record was in 2002 – I Can’t Stop which was when he came back to the UK again and we saw him live, once again, singing soul music.  The voice hadn’t gone anywhere and was still extraordinary.

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He’s still handing out roses!

Watching Al Green live I would look forward to his favourite moment, my favourite piece of the ceremony  : you know when singers go high and they move the microphone away from their mouths?  Al does that until his arm is completely straight and he can’t get the mic any further away – so he will just put it down at his feet and sing without amplification.  The audience hush and he draws us in. It is an immaculate moment. He gets the spirit like this at absolutely every gig and it is always the highlight.

 

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Top Al Green tunes that never make it onto Greatest Hits albums you ask?  I can help you there.  Old Time Lovin from 1971’s Let’s Stay Together is as good as anything he’s done. Guitar-based song, which is unusual for Al.  His long-time friend and producer Willie Mitchell played keyboards, often the bubbling Hammond organ on many of Al Green’s songs and it became a signature sound on the Hi record label, all recorded at Royal Studios in Memphis, along with folk like Syl Johnson, Ann Peebles and O.V. Wright.  I should note here that Willie was the first person to visit Green in hospital after his second & third degree burns were skin grafted, they made 11 amazing albums together, but the year before Belle was released they’d parted company because Willie wasn’t interested in producing gospel music.  Al Green produced The Belle Album himself.

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Another great song is Home Again on the wonderful album Living For You (1973).  Strings and organ dominate the groove, with tasteful horn flourishes and pads.  His singing is exquisite. Willie Mitchell and Al Green in sync.

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My favourite is I’m Glad You’re Mine on the LP I’m Still In Love With You (with its stunning title track !) from 1972. Incredible drumming from Al Clark of Booker T & the MGs across town at Stax Records, who co-wrote many of the early songs with Al Green & Willie Mitchell, and played on most of them.

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And finally I’d recommend the last track on the masterpiece LP Call Me (1973) which is called simply Jesus Is Waiting.  Enjoy.

Rare live performance of Belle on my birthday 1978 in Japan :

Playlist of all the tunes mentioned above :

My Pop Life #210 : The Carnival Is Over – The Seekers

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The Carnival Is Over  –  The Seekers

High above the dawn is waiting
And my tears are falling rain
For the carnival is over
We may never meet again

1965 was the year of The Seekers, The Shangri-Las, The Skatalites, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, Bert Jansch & Ken Dodd, The Byrds & The Beatles, Bob Dylan & Tom Jones, Mum’s nervous breakdown and subsequent divorce from my father.  That all bled into 1966 too.   I was young – 8 years old – but not that young.

I previously wrote about the time my mum spent in Hellingly Hospital in My Pop Life #55 – Help! by The Beatles but it was all a blur in the end, apart from those few memories.   The songs of that year stand out as beacons of clarity in a world turning darker and confusingly indeterminate – twinkling shards of light in the doubt – but looking back the only ones I strongly remember were the number 1s (of which The Seekers had two).  And I wonder if that is because my dad and my Nan were looking after us,  and they didn’t have the radio on much, or maybe it was 1965 and they didn’t play Radio Luxemburg or Radio Caroline.  So only the ones off the telly got through to my ears.  Strange thought. Like a rent in the sound firmament.

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Me holding my brother Paul in the early 1960s

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Even though The Seekers break-through year was 1965, I rather feel that this song is set in 1966/7 after Mum had come out of hospital and bought The Best Of The Seekers LP and played it quite a lot.      Especially the first three tracks : Morningtown Ride, A World Of Our Own and The Carnival Is Over.

Mum had escaped from hospital by pretending to go for a walk one day.  She’d earlier made friends with a woman who was on the same meds as she was and a few beds along, and one day the woman had disappeared.  I actually remember Mum telling us this on one clear autumn day, when Dad took me, Paul and Andrew into the visiting room at Hellingly.  (although I’m not sure that Andrew was there though at around one year old.  He was in Portsmouth with Mum’s sister Valerie).

Anyway Mum, Heather Brown as was, said that she assumed the woman had gone home, got out of that place and was back with her family.   Then one day Mum had gone upstairs for something (?) and there was that same woman walking along the corridor, drugged up to the eyeballs and not recognising Mum at all.  We didn’t like that story and neither did Mum because shortly after that visit she was back home.  She’d just walked out and got on a bus.

Later on, maybe 1967 or even later, she told me of the circumstances of the escape and how the doctor had phoned her at home and said she would have to come back and she said no.  For a few days they negotiated, Dad, Mum, Dr Maggs and then she voluntarily went back to hospital for a short while, on the strict understanding that it was for a few weeks only.  I can’t remember how long for.  But a deal was struck and so at some point she was finally back at home to our huge relief.  I can’t claim to remember the celebrations, the hugs and kisses or the arguments that followed, just a few images of marmalade pots flying into the wall; glasses being removed and held high in the air; “don’t be so stupid“;  regular use of the words ‘bugger‘ and ‘off‘ and even the occasional ‘sod‘.  We hated it.

All this time or thereabouts, Lynne was babysitting for us.  She was a kind of flowery hippy type, skinny with long frizzy ash-blonde hair.  She would marry our dad in 1973 if memory serves.  There’s an infinitely sad photo of Ralph, Paul and Andrew with John & Lynne outside the Brighton Registry Office.  The tear-drop shirts give me the date.  Years later mum would tell us of others, and other things that happened before the divorce was granted sometime in 1966 on the grounds of “mental cruelty”.   I didn’t really understand at the time, and actually remembered the entire two year period later as – a divorce followed by a nervous breakdown.  My memory had literally re-ordered the universe so that it made sense.  The divorce caused the breakdown.  We can all understand that, so some degree.  But no.  It was actually the other way around.  I unpicked the actual facts much later when I was fully grown and older than my parents were in 1966.

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I was still walking to school half a mile south towards the Downs and life went on as before but without Dad.  Nan still came up now and again, or more commonly it was Wendy who turned up who was our cousin from Portsmouth and must have been a teenager by then.  I wrote about her in My Pop Life #102 when she visited a few years later and went to Eastbourne with Mum to see Desmond Dekker.

The sacred music from this mid-sixties era is imprinted onto me like a stick of rock, all the lyrics, harmonies and tunes.  The Sound Of Music.  Oliver!  Motown. The Beatles.  Dionne Warwick.  And, yes – The Seekers.

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They were part of that early-60s folk wave of clean-harmony middle-class white folk who had a particular confidence, and a bright, clear and gently righteous sound – Pete Seeger, The Kingston Trio, The Weavers, Peter, Paul & Mary, The New Christy Minstrels, Joan Baez and John Denver.  The Seekers were somewhat more poppy folk from Australia and their first release was a version of Waltzing Matilda, which I have to report reluctantly is not as good as Rolf Harris’.  They travelled to Britain by ship then performed alongside Dusty Springfield (see My Pop Life #149) whereupon they also met her brother Tom who had earlier been in a popular group with his sister called The Springfields.  He wrote and produced a song for The Seekers called I’ll Never Find Another You in 1964 which eventually got to Number 1 in the UK. He also wrote The Carnival Is Over, Georgy Girl and A World Of Our Own.  The clear female voice is that of Judith Durham whose pitching is straight as an arrow clean centre of every note, supported by the three fellas whose harmonies thrillingly nestle under that clear pure voice, supporting and stretching the melody to its full promise and providing hair-on-the-back-of-the-neck every time.

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The Carnival Is Over is sung to an old Russian folk melody called Stenka Razin with original lyrics written by the poet Dmitry Sadovnikov in 1883 – and he told a historical tale of the Volga boatmen – a terrible dark story :

The Ballad of Stenka Razin

From beyond the wooded island
To the river wide and free
Proudly sailed the arrow-breasted
ships of Cossack yeomanry.

On the first is Stenka Razin
With his princess by his side
Drunken holds in marriage revels
With his beauteous young bride

From behind there comes a murmur
He has left his sword to woo;
One short night and Stenka Razin
Has become a woman, too.

Stenka Razin hears the murmur
Of his discontented band
And his lovely Persian princess
He has circled with his hand.

His dark brows are drawn together
As the waves of anger rise;
And the blood comes rushing swiftly
To his piercing jet black eyes

I will give you all you ask for
Head and heart and life and hand.
And his voice rolls out like thunder
Out across the distant land.

Volga, Volga, Mother Volga
Wide and deep beneath the sun,
You have never seen such a present
From the Cossacks of the Don.

So that peace may reign forever
In this band so free and brave
Volga, Volga, Mother Volga
Make this lovely girl a grave.

Now, with one swift mighty motion
He has raised his bride on high
And has cast her where the waters
Of the Volga roll and sigh.

Dance, you fools, and let’s be merry
What is this that’s in your eyes?
Let us thunder out a shanty
To the place where beauty lies.

From beyond the wooded island
To the river wide and free
Proudly sailed the arrow-breasted
ships of Cossack yeomanry.

It is a darkly male, anti-love, pro-warrior kind of song.  Not many of those in my Pop Life.  It alarms me that there is a strand in song – in men – with this death-cult kind of feeling being expressed and I copy it here for interest and as a kind of appalled question – is that who we are?  Really?  It actually appears very Greek – Medea killing her children.  According to Wikipedia  “the Dutch traveller Jean Jansen Struys (1630—1694), says that the murder was meant as a sacrifice with which Razin hoped to appease the much loved and feared Volga River”.

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In the Tom Springfield re-write the darkness disappears and we have a simple yearning lament for something lost, perhaps a brief affair with a lion-tamer or a clown, but the circus is leaving town and we get sympathetic lines :

Like a drum, my heart was beating
And your kiss was sweet as wine
But the joys of love are fleeting…

My mother, consciously or not, must have used this as an anthem for her own broken marriage.  Or perhaps it was lodger and lover Stan leaving for his home in Australia which was the heartbreak.   It has a funereal beat to it, tragic and fated but yet graced with ethereal & beautiful harmonies that really lift you up from tragedy into a place of light and joy.  Quite an extraordinary effect.  It worked on Mum, and it still works on me. Some of the best songs have both joy and sadness in them.  And it hasn’t escaped me that I have avoided the in-depth discussion of my parent’s divorce and instead devoted some time to an exploration of the song.  There is a pattern here I believe.  Most of my traumatic moments, my lonely moments, my brave moments have been hidden inside my personal soundtrack.  The music made it all bearable.  Now older, I can be ambushed by all kinds of things which operate the hidden triggers to open those boxes of feeling, not always musical.  And I’m not sure if I have very much to say about my parent’s divorce anyway, except that it put me off marriage – or so I thought.  Once I was in fact married, I realised that it was divorce I wasn’t interested in.  Marriage was fine, as long as it was for ever.

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Andrew, Selmeston East Sussex 1965

Morningtown Ride opened the Seekers album and was our lullaby that we used to rock baby Andrew, now two, three years old :

Train whistle blowing, makes a sleepy noise

Underneath the blankets for all the boys and girls..

Rockin, rollin’ ridin, out along the bay

All bound for Morningtown, many miles away…

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Andrew it was who was hit hardest by the divorce because he had no real memory of his father being at home.  In that sense I became his father-figure at the tender age of 8.   In later years I always placed my younger brother in goal so that I could score past him, and he would get revenge by entering Paul and I’s bedroom and breaking carefully constructed Airfix kits.    Middle brother Paul’s version of the damage control that comes from a broken & dysfunctional home was a simple but devastating remark he made when I was 30 years old :

Ralph, you got the lion’s share of the confidence in our family”.  

This is undeniable – as the oldest of three boys left at home with a recovering single mother, I’d had seven years with both parents, a reasonably stable base from which to build a person.  Paul had five years, Andrew one.  But having two parents isn’t the be-all & end-all of a healthy childhood.  Many other things come into play.  The carnival might have been over, but we could all still sing about it and we were all still together.

This blog contains 1965 words.

My Pop Life #209 : Classical Symphony in D – Sergei Prokofiev

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Classical Symphony – Sergei Prokofiev

I should be on my way to Russia right now.  Quick stopover in Moscow then on to Ekaterinberg, the furthest east of all the World Cup 2018 venues.  That was the plan.  Targeting the game there on Friday – Egypt v Uruguay.  After the season that Mo Salah has had I’d like to see him at a World Cup.  Will he be fit ?  Hmmm

However here I am at home in Brooklyn having spent the afternoon on a reconnaissance trip to Brighton Beach.  Little Odessa, not Hove, actually.  Looking for World Cup vibes because we’re spending this World Cup in New York City.   We’ll be seeking out neighbourhood cafes and restaurants showing games, in particular representing the teams which are playing.  So, on Friday we’ll be heading to Bijans,  an Iranian restaurant in Boerum Hill, just down the road, for the must-win game for both Morocco and Iran since the other two teams in that group are mighty Portugal and Spain.

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Jenny and I in Soweto, World Cup 2010

But why aren’t we going to Russia then?  Jenny and I have been to the last six World Cups – in Los Angeles ’94, France ’98, Japan/Korea ’02, Germany ’06, South Africa ’10 and Brazil ’14.  Amazing times.  Truly.  But Jenny decided about a year ago that she didn’t fancy the Russia World Cup because of the continued racism at games in that country.  We met some Russians in Rio in 2014 on their way to the Maracaña to see Russia play Belgium.  I asked them where they were from and they, all fresh-faced and covered in flags, said “Irkutsk”.  Wow, I thought, remembering the Risk board from my teens, Siberia !!  They’ve come a long way.  And they seemed so sweet and naive and I remember thinking – the World Cup in Russia will be cool.  I still hold to that.  But Jenny has been in England for 4 months doing a play at the Donmar and only just got back, I don’t really want to fly off to Russia on my own, leaving Jenny behind,  in the hope of hooking up with our old football buddy Billy The Bee who has a slightly more England-centred agenda than me.  I did want to, but I didn’t.  I wouldn’t.  I haven’t.

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Me, Melissa (her 1st game!!) & Bella Bee at Griffin Park after 2-1 win v QPR

When I travelled to London in April to see Jenny in the play ‘The Way of The World‘  by William Congreve, I decided to see Billy to break the news to him that I wouldn’t be accompanying him to Russia.  I went west on the Piccadilly Line from Covent Garden to Northfields and walked down to The Globe, where I have been many times before for Brighton & Hove Albion away matches v Brentford, for Billy the Bee is, yes you guessed it, a Brentford fan, and today they were at home to West London Rivals Queens Park Rangers.  (Brentford won 2-1). As the afternoon and beers progressed, a number of Billy’s mates, including dear David Lane who I know, came up to Billy and expressed worry on his behalf in Russia.  None of them were going.  I added my forthcoming absence to his day.

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Billy the Bee in Johannesburg, World Cup 2010

Jenny and I met Billy on a train from Paris to Toulouse during France ’98. We watched the England v Romania game together on a pavement TV after failing to score tickets for the match, and found each other at every World Cup since then.  We were in Jo’burg together in a large house, went to Soweto pretty much every day.  You can find these stories on my other blog.  Rather weirdly they read from the bottom up.  Gonna see if I can fix that.

Anyway.

Russia.  I wish I was going.  But I’m not.  The country, the nation, its politics and culture has had a huge part in my life since I was small.  Always held up as the reason why people weren’t communist, or the reason why they were.  The 20 million war dead who stopped Hitler alongside the British and the Americans always turn up in arguments, rightly so.  I read Marx at school (he was German I know but his writing had a profound effect on Russia) and wondered why his teachings, which resembled those of Jesus in the New Testament, were so reviled in my own country.  I pieced it together fairly quickly, indeed to the extent that I chose to go to University at the LSE rather than Cambridge, and studied Lenin and the revolution.  There in the late 70s I did a course entitled “Soviet & Yugoslav Legal Systems” which made up 25% of my 3rd year, and was taught by Law Professor Ivo Lapenna who was a Slav.  Four or five times a class he would utter the famous formulation “according to Marxism…” and this almost made the three years of law worthwhile, indeed privileged was I to spend part of my youth sitting in educational establishments learning these things.  Ten years later in 1989 I read Mikhail Gorbachev‘s book Perestroika and was there in Berlin when the wall came down at the end of that momentous year (see My Pop Life #166).  There was a shrinkage of the Soviet state down to its essence, Russia, and the gangsters took over.

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And of course I’ve had to parse the media throughout my life regarding stories and attitudes to The USSR as it was known until I turned 33.  United Soviet Socialist Republic. Stories are inevitably negative until you read The Morning Star, or go to the source material, the history, the books that Marx or Gorbachev or Solzhenitsyn actually wrote.  They’re very good by the way.  The current Western bad guy is once again the Russian Bear, personified, as these short-hand attitudes always have to be, by a figure, in this case, Mr Vladimir PutinRandy Newman had a song called Putin on his last album which contained the opening line

Putin puttin’ his pants on

which is both hilarious and childish.  But now we’re supposed to be interested in these cartoon personalities and their egos.   Forgive me if I don’t get into politics, right now.

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And in parallel to these political revolutions and counter-revolutionary upheavals, I was reading Dostoyevsky and Solzhenitsyn as a teenager.  Crime & Punishment, The Idiot,  One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovitch, and Cancer Ward.  I actually wrote a short story whilst at school entitled One Day In The Life of Ivan ‘eadache Mum, which was a kind of parody of me being late for school as I recall.

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 I read Turgenev and the amazing Nikolai Gogol as a student, surrealist and hilarious material in the case of the latter, and my first Leo Tolstoy novel Boyhood.

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I finally read Tolstoy and Pushkin as an adult.  Of these, Tolstoy’s War and Peace is my favourite, I relished it, every word.  I will read it again if I live long enough.  Fyodor Dostoyevsky writes so well about people and I’ve always felt that The Brothers Karamazov perfectly described my two brothers and I.  But I was a teenager when I felt that and it may not stand up to detailed scrutiny to be fair.   The Idiot is quite superb.   The Peter Sellers film Being There is based on it.    I’m saving Anna Karenina for a rainy day, but remember clearly my first girlfriend Miriam Ryle reading it when she was 16.  I never got on with The Master & Margerita I must confess, but I’m prepared to have another go, neither have I got around to Nabakov yet.  Plenty of time for that I hope, and I have been told how great he is.

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I haven’t seen the Bolshoi Ballet, but I have seen a Russian ballet company from St Petersburg during the Brighton Festival with my friend Millie (who loves ballet) performing Tchaikovsky‘s Nutcracker Suite & Swan Lake.  It was a classic performance which for me meant it was a bit of a museum piece but it was breathtakingly beautiful.

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One of my top five films is Russian – I refer to Andrei Tarkovsky‘s Andrei Rublev, made in black & white in 1965.  It is a three-hour meditation on the life of the medieval icon painter Rublev, but that doesn’t even begin to touch at the remarkable achievement of this film. Seek it out and enjoy if you haven’t seen it.  I know it doesn’t sound like a film that you want to see, and there’s nothing much I can say to change that, except that it is absolutely breathtakingly brilliant.  All of Tarkovsky’s films are extraordinary in different ways – I name-checked his sci-fi masterpiece Solaris in My Pop Life #121.  The final film, made in Sweden is called The Sacrifice and again it is quite an astonishing piece of work.

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Original poster for Battleship Potemkin, 1925

Other Russian films I have marvelled at include Elem Klimov‘s ‘Come and See‘ about the effect of war on a young man, some of the images from that screening sometime in the early 1980s are seared onto my brain.  And of course Sergei Eisenstein‘s Battleship Potemkin and Alexander Nevsky are both essential viewing for film buffs as is Bondarchuk‘s War & Peace.  And just last year I was sent a BAFTA dvd for the film Loveless, directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev which was quite superb.

I have managed to avoid Dr Zhivago both in print and on screen.

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Anton Chekhov

Anton Chekhov of course was a genius, if there is such a thing, and his plays have thrilled me.  From The Seagull which I saw with with John Hurt to Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard and Uncle Vanya -they are all exceptional, exquisite. My friend Simon Korner was pleading with me to read Chekhov’s short stories when we were both 18, and I finally read them in my 40s.  They are indeed quite the finest short stories I think I have ever read, although James Baldwin still takes some beating.

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‘Day of the Artist’ by Marc Chagall

Marc Chagall is Russian isn’t he ?  Belorussian.  I love his work.  And the propagandists of the revolution created some incredible stuff.   And Kandinsky.  I’ll only get into trouble if I start rabbiting on about Constantin Stanislavski and the method school of acting.  I read his book as a young man – of course I did, having not trained as an actor it was the least I could do.  I’ve never really got past the “if you’re acting it you have to experience it” thing though, having played a number of killers myself over the years and never actually killed someone to see what it feels like.

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Sergei Prokofiev

And so to the music.  I should have listened to Peter & The Wolf as a child but I have no memory of it.  Sergei Prokofiev wrote it in 1936 when he was 45 years old, and had finally settled in Moscow after leaving Russia in 1918, although he was never an exile from the Revolution as I understand it.   I suspect Tchaikovsky was the first Russian music I listened to – Swan Lake no doubt which I even suspect we may have owned on 78 rpm and played on our portable wind-up gramophone (see My Pop Life #43).  Once you’ve heard of someone, you keep hearing it of course.  Everyone’s a Fruit & Nut Case was a commercial on British TV (Cadbury’s chocolate) to the tune of Sugar Plum Fairies.  Then it was probably the 1812 Overture  with its cannon gimmick, then he gets a mention in Harold Pinter’s  The Caretaker which I did for A-level English Literature, then the Ken Russell film The Music Lovers.  Of course I must mention Mussorgsky because in 1971 I bought the Emerson Lake & Palmer LP Pictures at an Exhibition which introduced me to public humiliation being a prog-rock canter through his song suite of the same name and deeply uncool. Its still brilliant, and it was when I was 14.

Sergei Rachmaninov crept in at some point in my 20s – particularly the 2nd Piano Concerto which Eric Carmen borrowed for the pop song “All By Myself“.  Later I would buy an album called Rachmaninov Plays Rachmaninov which I recommend very highly indeed.  He had very large hands and could play a natural 12th on the piano with ease.   Anyway, I never really considered Prokofiev or Rachmaninov or Tchaikovsky to be Russian.  They were “Classical” composers who became international and of no nation almost because of the music.  I’m still learning though, because classical music went through a very nationalistic phase 100 years ago when each nation’s composers started to celebrate their own folk music and turn it into high art, and the Russians participated in this too.  Did Borodin try it ?  Not sure.

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Scheherezade – painting by Léon Bakst

My current swoon is Rimsky-Korsakov‘s Sheherezade which is a suite based on the Arabian Nights and is stunning.  I listen to it once a week, it is quite tremendous.   I didn’t start checking out Dimitri Shostakovitch or Igor Stravinksy until later – but in-between these musical giants  I fell in love with the genius of Sergei Prokofiev.

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I think I bought the Classical Symphony when we were living in Los Angeles in 1992-5.  Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard was a giant Emporium of music – I remember bumping into Meera Syal & her then husband Shekhar Bhatia in there one afternoon, a basketful of CDs in the crook of my arm.  I think they were on holiday, but perhaps Meera was auditioning for things.  Bless her.  Perhaps Prokofiev was in there.  It is his 1st symphony, written in Russia in the summer of 1917, weeks before the October Revolution. He called it the Classical Symphony himself, because he felt that one of his heroes Franz Josef Haydn (see My Pop Life #134) would have written in that style were he alive.  Indeed, all of Haydn’s 106 symphonies are very short and the form then got heavily stretched by Mozart,  Beethoven and later Mahler so that you might be sitting for 95 minutes watching and listening to Mahler’s 3rd Symphony.  In contrast, Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony is very short – in my version by Leonard Bernstein & the NY Philharmonic it comes in at under 14 glorious minutes.  It is a sprightly, melodic, wonderfully-arranged piece with massive dynamics which still thrill me today when I listen to it.  It has both old-fashioned and very modern elements which the ear picks up on immediately.  It does its thing & gets out, rather like Haydn did with his 12-minute symphonies in the 1790/1800s and is similarly instantly accessible and hugely enjoyable.

Prokofiev didn’t stick with the short format for his symphonies, indeed his 5th Symphony which appeared on the same CD is 40 minutes long and very different musically, though similarly popular.  Other works of his which I like very much include the 3rd Piano Concerto, often paired with Ravel‘s 1st Piano Concerto and one of the finest works of the 20th century to my sweet-toothed ear.  His other best-known piece perhaps is the troika from Lieutenant Kije which actually sounds like a three galloping horses pulling a carriage across a white winter landscape.  The Brighton Beach Boys played it at our Christmas gigs and I was charged with playing the melody on my alto in a duet with the French horn.  Greg Lake including the melody in his miserable Christmas hit I Believe In Father Christmas at the suggestion, apparently of Keith Emerson.  It’s the best part of the song.

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I also have David Bowie narrating Peter & The Wolf, where each character in the story is played by a different instrument.  I’m sure you know it.  I have the first 2 Violin Concertos.  There is plenty of his work I have yet to hear, and I can’t claim to be any kind of authority on him.  I just love this piece of music.

So I’m indebted to the Russians for much of my cultural and political nourishment.  Russia is a major slice of me as I hope I’ve illustrated above.  I hope they put on a good World Cup and enjoy it, particularly the non-racist fans.  I hope those visitors from all over the world have a splendid time there over the next four weeks.  I’ll be watching from my sofa and in the various Egyptian, Colombian, German, English, Senegalese, Iranian, Spanish, Nigerian, French, English and Brazilian restaurants of New York City.   I think Brazil will lift the trophy,  who knows.  But deep down, I wish I was there too.

Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic in 1968

My Pop Life #208 : I Can’t Win – Ry Cooder

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Can’t Win – Ry Cooder

9th June 2018

We went to see Ry Cooder last night in the Town Hall a wonderful old venue with a really intimate feel on 43rd St, built in 1921 by suffragette supporters.  Jenny knew the venue from an event a couple of years ago directed by her godfather Nicolas Kent – it was a staging of the transcripts of Trump’s picks for Attorney General I think.  The beer is served in plastic cups with logos which cost $5 thus the first round was $28.  She did warn me to be fair, and they only charge you for the cup once.  What a world.

Ry Cooder opened with an old song called Nobody’s Fault But Mine which was written by Blind Willie Johnson then covered by everyone including Led Zeppelin.  He sat centre stage with a battered old acoustic guitar, his white hair covered with a blue wool bobble hat (without the bobble) and there was a young man playing a treated saxophone at the side.  Treated electronically, acoustically, sonically who knows it was haunting all night.  Cooder delivered the song with the authority of a delta bluesman, picking notes, sliding his bottleneck up and down the strings which twanged and shuddered and whispered under his touch.  He was so connected to this song, with the changes and the lyrics, it was evident in every note.

I was introduced to Ry Cooder by Sir Nick Partridge.  He wasn’t Sir Nick in those days, he was Nick P., a fresh-faced and pleasant young man who lived in the flat on West End Lane that Pete and Sali owned and that I lived in too.  He was my flatmate. Known Pete since schooldays.  I’d just finished my degree in Law at the LSE and Nick had graduated from Keele University doing International Relations.  We were all post-graduates suddenly.  I was saving money for a further “year off” as we called them back then.  This was 1979 and the future lay ahead of us. Education and academia was, it seemed, finally behind us.  We used to go record shopping together because there was so much to discover !  There still is some 40 years later !!!

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Nick Partridge and Ralph Brown in a North London record shop, 1979.  Picture taken by Pete Thomas.

I was painting and decorating that summer in Pinner, and later moved onto a house in St John’s Wood, definitely worthy of its own post.  My previous mentions of this vivid era of my young adult life were in posts about Talking Heads (My Pop Life #92 ) John Martyn (My Pop Life #153) and The Specials (My Pop Life #178) and Nick features in all of them.  We were a little musical commune up there between the railways of the Jubilee Line to the south and the Thameslink line to Hertfordshire to the north PLUS the North London Line which carried nuclear waste past our building overnight while we listened to Ry Cooder and The Gladiators.  My girlfriend Mumtaz was in Mecklenburgh Square and would come and squat cross-legged on the floor with us as we passed the bliss.

In the evenings and at weekends we were all obsessed with listening to music and going to gigs.  Pete was very much a reggae aficionado but also fond of the quirky post-punk world emerging from the rubble of 1977, a plethora of independent labels issuing interesting stuff of all kinds like Wah! Heat, SpizzEnergi, Flying Lizards, or The Auteurs all with picture sleeves and original music.   In my capricious memory Sal was more into rock and I was a student new wave ex-punk who listened to soul, but Nick was always different.  Later he would live on a houseboat in Amsterdam doing a blues radio show but that’s another story, if you’re lucky.

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It was Nick who had Boomer’s Story and Paradise & Lunch and in the stoned democratic disc jockey world of West End Lane between the rails, when he got his turn for an LP side, it would often be one of these Ry Cooder records which were kind of country kind of bluesy kind of funky, but often with an added flavour from somewhere else.  Americana it would be called now.

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Then in 1979 he brought home an LP that looked like a new wave record, bright pink with a guitar player who looked a bit Nick Lowe but no.  It was the new Ry Cooder album called, unfeasibly, “Bop Til You Drop” and now we would all choose this record when our DJ turn came around.  Opening with a cover of Elvis Presley’s Little Sister but thereafter delving into obscure 60s R’n’B – Go Home Girl, Don’t You Mess Up A Good Thing, Trouble You Can’t Fool Me, Look At Granny Run Run – and a brilliant original song called Down In Hollywood (‘better hope that you don’t run out of gas…’), the album had a fantastic production quality on the guitar and backing vocals particularly.  In fact Bop Til You Drop was the first album ever recorded digitally.  Cooder is a magnificently rootsy guitarist, not a show-off in any way, but just tries to get the soul out of the instrument, and the backing vocals on the album were by Terry Evans & Bobby King who would later record their own record with Ry Cooder producing and playing on every track.  What I didn’t know until last night (too stoned to read the liner notes or maybe just not that nerdy after all) was that Chaka Khan sings on Down In Hollywood and Good Thing.   He had roughly the same line up last night – although not the same players.  Jenny turned to me at one point – probably during The Very Thing That Makes You Rich (Will Make Me Poor) and said “What would you call this music?”  I said “country soul?”.  She could hear mariachi.  It’s funky.  It’s hawaiian.  It’s blues.   It’s music.

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Cooder plays without any ego at all, and often uses the concert (and indeed many of his record releases) to showcase other people and give them a turn in the spotlight.  Last night it was his wonderfully relaxed backing singers The Hamiltones who played a couple of numbers while he left the stage, then joined them on guitar for another.  Earlier it had been his son Joachim who opened proceedings with his own music.  Ry Cooder it was who travelled to Havana in the 1990s breaking the Cuban boycott and encouraging the old stars of the 1950s to team up and record again, the resulting film and album opening up Cuba to the world once again and introducing me to Ruben Gonzales, Ibrahim Ferrer and Compay Segundo playing together as the incomparable Buena Vista Social Club.

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He has recorded with the great Malian blues guitarist Ali Farke Toure on Talking Timbuktu, with Captain Beefheart on Safe As Milk (see My Pop Life #205) with Taj Mahal in the band Rising Sons, with Randy Newman on 12 Songs, the Rolling Stones on Let It Bleed & Sticky Fingers, on Lowell George‘s original version of Willin’.  All playing slide guitar or bottleneck.  In 1984 he composed the soundtrack to Wim Wenders’ film Paris, Texas which starred Natassia Kinski and Harry Dean Stanton and following that became a sought-after soundtrack composer using his signature slide guitar.  He’s made albums with the latino community of Los Angeles such as Lalo Guerrero and Don Tosti (Chavez Ravine) and if left to his own devices appears to be following in the footsteps of his hero 1940s political folkie Woody Guthrie.  Or one of his heroes.

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Woody Guthrie 1943

*

In a new song last night he sang of a meeting between Jesus & Woody in heaven, looking down on what is happening now, from the vantage point of the 1950s when we had beaten the fascists and the world stretched out before us.

Jesus & Woody

Well bring your old guitar and sit here by me
Round the heavenly throne
Drag out your Oklahoma poetry, ’cause it looks like the war is on

And I don’t mean a war for oil, or gold, or trivial things of that kind
But I heard the news, the vigilante man is on the move this time

So sing me a song ’bout this land is your land
And fascists bound to lose
You were a dreamer, Mr. Guthrie, and I was a dreamer too

Once I spoke of a love for those who hate
It requires effort and strain
Vengeance casts a false shadow of justice which leads to destruction and pain
Some say I was a friend to sinners
But by now you know it’s true
Guess I like sinners better than fascists
And I guess that makes me a dreamer too

It was a chilling song but it wasn’t the only time that the name of Jesus was called.  One of Cooder’s biggest hits was gospel standard Jesus On The Mainline,  and with The Hamiltones‘ soulful harmonies it was a standout moment at the gig.  And it became clear to Jenny and I that we were really at a gospel show.  In the sense that the black church in America has long been a vehicle for resistance to oppression, using the biblical metaphors and stories to illustrate the struggle and gospel music to inspire and strengthen courage.  Cooder never went preachy, but he was very clear where he stood.  He mentioned Trayvon Martin before playing a song called The Vigilante.  It was the lack of ego that was most striking in the end.  Playing the guitar to try and find the most expressive notes, not to show-off or strike poses.

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Ry Cooder With Taj Mahal, 1968

And indeed, it seems to me this morning thinking back on Sir Nick as a young man in West Hampstead, smoking dope with a generous smile and a ready laugh that he had no ego then or indeed now.  He always had an easy manner where embarrassment was never far from the surface, mixed with laughter and great empathy.  I went to Hampstead Magistrates with him one day and watched him with his gentle phrasing and easy manner talk his middle-class way out of a conviction and get a finger-wagging in its place.

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Sir Nick with Kirsten O’Brien

Shortly after the Amsterdam year he joined The AIDS charity The Terrence Higgins Trust in 1985 becoming Chief Executive in 1991 and finally moving on in 2013 after 28 years of service and a knighthood which followed his OBE.   We formed a close bond in those 1979-1980 days and nights and beyond into the frisbee-playing, gay nightclubbing, political 1980s, stayed in touch right up until today.  I had no idea that he was gay back then but he’s never made a big deal out of it or changed his basic persona of decency, sincerity and jokes.

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Sir Nick talks with brother Andrew, Whitstable Bay.  My dad can be seen with check shirt on the pebbles between them

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Paul Brown is 50 in his beach hut and quite a tremendous shirt

The first time any of us saw Nick after he was knighted in the 2009 New Year Honours was at my brother Paul’s 50th birthday celebration which he held in Whitstable, Kent.  It was a wonderful weekend of family – Dad & Beryl came down from Yorkshire, Becky was back in Sussex by then and Jenny and I had summer son Jordan in tow – Dee’s youngest who had a key period of spending the summer with us in Brighton.  Sir Nick was there in the beach-hut, Paul was back from Shanghai mixing cocktails in a straw hat, Richard Davies (Lady G) was probably DJing and drinking at the same time and a splendid time was guaranteed and enjoyed by all.

Nick and his husband Simon have been to New York since we moved here – I remember him asking me what he should see on Broadway – it was 2016.  I had a one-word answer : Hamilton.  He bought tickets online, then I had to go to work when he was here so I missed him, but he saw the show and, of course, loved it.

 

Paulette & Beverley Randall, Paul Brown & Sir Nick Partridge, London 2015

I did see him the year before when Paul was in London for his birthday a couple of years ago – 2015 I guess.  And then he came to send me off on my 60th birthday last summer when I hardly spoke to anyone, but hugged everyone.   I am extremely fond of him and will always be grateful for his friendship and for bringing Bop Til You Drop (and Memphis Slim…) into my life.

The last song on the album is called I Can’t Win and it is a haunting and soulful three-part harmony, simply a beautiful song about being in love with someone who isn’t responding.  We’ve all been there, but I haven’t made a habit of it thank god.  When the gig finished last night the entire band went off for about 90 cursory seconds then returned immediately as we all stood and clapped for the encore.  And they sang I Can’t Win with piercing harmonies that made the hairs on the back of our necks stand on end.  It was the pinnacle on a great night.  And it’s already up on Youtube.

Live at Town Hall June 8th 2018:

Album Version :

 

My Pop Life #207 : How Great Thou Art – The Statler Brothers

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How Great Thou Art – The Statler Brothers

Then sings my soul, my saviour God, to thee

How great thou art, how great thou art

*

It’s a christian hymn.  I cannot pinpoint the exact moment when this song became part of my consciousness, but it was via my wife’s parents, in the 1990s, at a church, in London, of that I am certain.

I became the luckiest man on earth when I married Jenny Jules.  Not only because she is so special, the kind of person that pours forth light and love over whoever happens to be with her, but because that light & that love come from her parents who received me into their family as a son, and who have loved me ever since that moment.

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Thomas & Esther Jules

It may have been a christening service, Mollie & Pete’s wedding, Anthony’s wedding or possibly even a funeral.  I heard the choir singing it, and the congregation including Mrs Jules, Jenny’s Mum,  with her beautiful clear soprano.  The melody is superb and it has since become one of my favourite church hymns (I last wrote about hymns in My Pop Life #127).  Although I am an avowed atheist I don’t mind going to a christian service as long as the pastor doesn’t start moralising too heavily, as happened at one of the children’s christening services in the Stonebridge Church where Mr & Mrs Jules worshipped regularly.  Quite shocking judgemental crap about women who use assistance in getting pregnant as I recall, not from the regular priest, but it illustrated the dangers of christianity for me quite clearly.

However.

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The dashing young couple from St Lucia shortly after they met in London

The parents, (the parentals, The Rentals), Tom and Esther, both came to Britain by sea from St Lucia over 50 years ago and met each other in Paddington which had quite a decent St Lucian community in those days.  In the early days of my life with the Jules family, they lived in the shadow of Wembley Stadium in the London borough of Brent.   My wife Jenny is right in the middle of the brood, with two older sisters Dee & Mollie, plus one brother Jon and two younger sisters Mandy and Lucy.  If I start using nicknames now it will all get very confusing.   But my early nickname was Gens Blanc.  Said with a French accent please, because St Lucian patois is french at the root.  At least I think that was the name, it could have been Jean Blanc but that would have been slightly more weird. Or would it?

It didn’t really stick as a nickname longer than five years or so, after which I became Ralphie or as Mrs Jules would say it : Waffee.  I can tell that she loves me when she says it because she kind of sings it with a big smile on her face.   We call them a variety of names themselves but I’ll stick with Grandma & Grandad for now because since the little ones started to come along (around the time I joined the family) that’s what they have been.  So Tom and Esther = Grandad and Grandma.  They welcomed me with warmth and love from the very beginning, although I remember Grandad, at our wedding, laying an ancient father’s curse on the next two in line Mandy and Lucy with a warning to anyone who wanted to marry his two youngest that they were not available.

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Lucy, Mandy, Latifah, Jenny, Mollie, Dee.  

Grandma worked at Marks & Spencer for most of her working life which she enjoyed very much.  After retiring she started to enjoy making elaborate cakes, whether for special birthday occasions or weddings, or her famous and sacred black cake for Christmas, carefully wrapped in tinfoil and clingfilm to keep the treasure inside. Quite the best cake I have ever eaten.  Grandad was a drummer in St Lucia but gave that up as he made the crossing and spent his working life with London Transport as an engineer in the bus garage at Brent Cross.  Now retired, he still gets up every morning at 6am to make coffee and wake the various members of the family for work, including me when I stay over – tap tap on the door – “Ralphie ? Good morning.  Coffee.”  Bleary-eyed me : “Thank you Grandad”.  Then it is down the shop for the Daily Mirror – they are both socialists and republicans – and a good hour of checking the form of the horses that day, then to the Betting Shop for a small wager.  TV is a big favourite of them both too, Channel Four racing then re-runs of Dynasty or Bonanza or other 1980s shows. They bicker if they have an audience, making jokes at each other’s expense for our amusement.

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Grandad is a brilliant storyteller and dinner time (or lunchtime) is a family moment for a tale of something he saw, something that happened, always hilarious.  Such as the car which said, as he passed it “You are standing too close to this vehicle!  Please move away from this vehicle!”.  He loves that story.  He is incredibly fit for his age – he is into his 80s now – and doesn’t look a day over 55.  They’re both young for their years and completely family-centred, never happier than when the daughters bring their (now grown-up!) children and their children round.  Molly’s eldest Dominique has two beautiful children Tia & Kian, and two other daughters : my god-daughter Kimberley and Courtnie plus Robert whose birth I wrote about in My Pop Life #123.  Dee had Thomas, Jamie & Jordan and now  Thomas & Scarlett in turn have Skye & Lua.  Generations!  Brother Jon has three children but a schism in that marriage means that they are rarely seen.

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Grandad and Grandma can often be found listening to various kinds of music, let’s see : Jim Reeves is a favourite, Al Green and Perry Como; more left-field is Mexican-American tejano and country musician Freddy Fender;  their religious music, and then St Lucian and Trinidadian quadrille and soca – Caribbean dance music derived from calypso.  Downstairs in the kitchen the radio is on all day, tuned to Smooth FM usually, and that part of family life is deeply familiar to me !

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Waffee and Grandma

Grandad & Grandma are both Catholic and deeply involved with their local church, singing in the choir, organising the collection and other behind-the-scenes stuff.  When they are in St Lucia where they have built a house in the village of Mon Repos, there is a church just down the road and we all went there one Christmas to listen to the Filipino priest sermonise us with love.  In 2007 in fact I decided not to go to the Christmas morning service because I’d done it once and not really enjoyed it.  Everyone knew I wasn’t a christian so it wasn’t too rude to swerve.

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Extended family in Mon Repos, St Lucia

But my god-daughter Chloe was with us that year, and she wanted to talk to me about it.  She was 13 and wasn’t at all sure if she believed in God.  I think she was being polite and had already decided that she didn’t to be honest.  Her Mum Maureen was going, so was Jenny, Mandy, Lucy, Robbie, Dee, Jamie, Jordan, Thomas, Scarlett, Grandad and Grandma.  I wasn’t, and Chloe decided bravely to join me in sitting it out.  I had realised at around 8 or 9 years old that I didn’t believe in the stories I was being told by the vicar or anyone else and when it was time for me to go to Big School in Lewes aged 11, I took the opportunity to drop Sunday school finally.

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Chloe in St Lucia Christmas 2007

But christian music is something else entirely.  I’m a believer.  From the gospel of The Edwin Hawkins Singers’ Oh Happy Day (My Pop Life #199) to Sam Cooke, Al Green, Paul Robeson, Monteverdi or Bach (My Pop Life #76) it is some of the most moving and uplifting music you can find.  I bought Gavin Bryar’s Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet in 1993 when we lived in West Hollywood and much to Jenny’s dismay played that tramp singing his faith every day for a couple of months.  When I was looking online for a version of How Great Thou Art I was astounded to find thousands of different renditions, according to Wikipedia there are 1700 recorded songs at least.  Which puts it up there with Hoagy Carmichael’s Star Dust or The Beatles’ Yesterday.

It’s a relatively new song : composed as a poem in 1885 by Swedish Pastor Carl Boberg, it travelled via Estonia and Russia to then be translated into English by missionary Stuart Hine who added two verses of his own.  The melody is either Russian or Swedish depending on who you read.  It became popular in the 1960s when evangelical preacher Billy Graham used it at his giant tent meetings and has since been covered by all and anyone, from Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn to Gladys Knight, Al Green and most famously Elvis Presley who made his 2nd gospel LP in 1967 and called it How Great Thou Art.

I chose The Statler Brothers out of the dozens that I’ve listened to today (it’s proper work this blogging y’know!) because it approximates most closely to the version I hear in my head.  Not too slow, like Mahalia Jackson or Elvis. Not a solo voice (as beautifully as Tammy Wynette or Gladys Knight sing it).  Not too many gimmicks or personal touches.  Not over-produced.  Just a lovely four part harmony delivered straight by a country gospel quartet who often backed Johnny Cash.  But so many to choose from….  The Mormon Tabernacle Choir.  Mahalia Jackson.  Pentatonix.  Carrie Underwood.  Alan Jackson.  Dolly Parton.  Donna Summer.  Charlie Daniels.  Johnny Cash.  Willie Nelson….Some of these are attached so feel free to let me know your favourite in the comments below this blog.

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So in fact I may have heard it earlier in my life when I was around 10 or 11 in the late 60s without knowing what it was.  Maybe.  It is an amazing song and brings tears unbidden to my eyes, but it only became a favourite via Mrs Jules.  She would sing it gently to herself while bustling around the kitchen cooking some pemé & acqua (coconut tamale & chilli fish fritters) for Good Friday, or her famous chicken (when I ate chicken!), yam, dashin, plantain, rice & peas, bwa-pain if we were lucky – breadfruit, which grows in their garden in St Lucia along with avocados and bananas.  She has cooked me, and the whole family of course, many many fine meals.  Made with love. You can taste it to be sure.  They fill their house with love and laughter and gentle humour.  They are like my mum and dad and I love them both very much and thank them forever for allowing me to marry their beautiful daughter.  How great they are indeed.

The Statler Brothers :

Carrie Underwood & Vince Gill :

Elvis Presley live in 1972 :

The Vocal Majority (extraordinary) :

the brilliant Tammy Wynette :

Alan Jackson :

My Pop Life #205 : Sure ‘Nuff ‘N Yes I Do – Captain Beefheart

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Sure ‘Nuff ‘N Yes I Do  –  Captain Beefheart

Well I was born in the desert, came on up from New Orleans
Came up on a tornado, sunlight in the sky
I went around all day with the moon sticking in my eye

The song itself doesn’t really mean anything to me. So what’s it doing here then?  It’s a blues copy of an old jugband song by Gus Cannon which is a shout out to young girls to come on by  and spend some time.  Sure, why not.  But Captain Beefheart was a sound I’d heard at school round my friend Simon’s house, possibly even at Pete’s too, and I was pretty sure I didn’t like it much.  But in the spirit of the great John Peel, DJ from the early 60s through to 2004, it tops this blog as a song which he introduced to me. 

Let me explain.  This is from Captain Beefheart’s first LP Safe As Milk which came out in 1967, and when I finally started to dig this Magic Band in the year 2008 I was working on a British film called The Boat That Rocked, playing a DJ broadcasting from a pirate radio station moored on a sandbank in the North Sea, just outside British territorial waters.   Set in 1966/7, the film attempts to encapsulate british pop culture at a time when, despite The Beatles, The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, Motown, Dusty, The Beach Boys et al, the incredibly fecund and musically diverse pop boom that was the mid-sixties, the nation was being fed a musical diet of trad jazz & light entertainment by the BBC.  Pirate radio stations filled the gap.   Based on both Radio Caroline & Radio London (but always denied by Working Title Films for legal reasons) the film portrays a who’s who of the deejays of the mid-1960s most of whom went on to Radio One when it was formed in 1967 as the law changed and the pirates ceased broadcasting.

I am actually old enough to remember Radio Caroline and Radio London – ‘the Big L’.  I remember Emporer Rosko and Keith Skues and Johnny Walker and even the jingles.  My mum would tune in from leafy East Sussex.  I was 8, 9 years old.  Where else could we find the pop music we loved?  Radio Luxembourg, Radio London, Radio Caroline.  It’s hard to conceive that until summer 1967 there was no pop radio in the UK (a few hours on Saturday BBC) apart from the Pirate Radio stations.

In December/January 2007/8 I was actually on stage doing a play (for the first time since 1990!) at the Bush Theatre in London’s Shepherd’s Bush.  I’ll write about it another time, but it was about a punk band revived in their later years for cash.  Damn good piece of work.  One of the cast Pierce Quigley had auditioned for Richard Curtis and told me about the set-up of the movie.  Right up my street, down my valley, into my top pocket, straight to the heart on my watch I felt.  I wondered if I had a shout, but it sounded pretty much all cast.  In January though I travelled to Portobello Road in London’s Notting Hill and met Richard, Hilary Bevan-Jones the producer, Fiona Weir the casting director and Richard’s girlfriend (and mother of his four children) Emma Freud. I read my version of “Bob” the late-night DJ, the hermit, the whispery groovy stoner and Hendrix lover (“this young man is really quite good at playing the guitar”).

Nailed it.

Next up was a table read in London’s Soho with a shiny selection of insecure yet quixotic talent – Bill Nighy, Nick Frost, Kenneth Branagh, Jack Davenport, Chris O’Dowd, Tom Sturridge.   Jason Isaacs was sitting next to me but he was only keeping a seat warm, he assured me, for Rhys Ifans who couldn’t make it.  The critical part of The Count, the American DJ – the Emporer Rosko part – had not apparently been filled.  No one else had been cast.  Actually I think Bill & Rhys and Nick & Ken had been cast, but all the “smaller parts” had not.  It was like a giant open audition.  Jeez.

We read the script aloud, someone was taping it.  No pressure.

We were all cast a few days later.  Except Jason Isaacs.

I was to play Bob, and Richard wanted to change the name.  Clearly lawyers were all over this script to stop it being likened to Radio Caroline or the others.  Bob reminded the lawyers of Bob Harris from The Old Grey Whistle Test and they wanted to avoid litigation.  During my research period I met Bob Harris at the BBC while he recorded his country show for Radio 2, and told him of the discussion of names.  He insisted that the character be named Bob, because even though he wasn’t on a pirate ship, Harris felt a huge affinity for those characters, and came up in the same generation.  “Bob” my DJ was a mix of John Peel and Whispering Bob Harris really, a laid back groover, bringing alternative sounds to a pop generation.  I was in method-acting heaven.  Bob was officially my DJ name and I’m still friends with Mr Harris.images.duckduckgo-3

Bob Harris

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John Peel

I read all the books by & about Bob Harris and John Peel, with whom I had grown up in the 1970s.  Harris on OGWT with the best live music, including Bob Marley and Focus, Peel’s late night show on Radio One, his dry appearances on Top Of The Pops, his scouse wit hidden beneath a monotone of intelligence, his music choices bloody minded, but 90% of the time right on the money.  Reggae, folk, psychedelic rock, punk, post punk, Vivian Stanshall  and alternative music were his forte.  He had a massive vinyl collection at his home near Ipswich.

John Peel sadly died in 2004 and is now enshrined as a national treasure, so I was doubly honoured to portray even a pretend version of his early years on the pirate ship.  In fact in 1966 he had an eclectic radio show called The Perfumed Garden which broadcast every night from midnight until 3am.  He played strange new bands like Moby Grape, Jefferson Airplane and The Incredible String Band, and read poetry and passages from children’s literature – which was all the rage in mid-sixties pop land – Piper At The Gates of Dawn is from Wind In The Willows, White Rabbit from Alice In Wonderland.  He did speak incredibly quietly into the microphone, unlike the daytime DJs like Kenny Everett or Tony Blackburn, who would create a party atmosphere and keep it upbeat.  Peel would imagine his audience were stoned, lying on rugs and cushions with joss-sticks burning, smoking cigarettes and joints, and he was largely right.  Of course some of his audience were at home with their parents listening in that infamous cliché under the bedclothes to a tiny transistor radio, so the whispering worked well for them too.  It was Peel who introduced Captain Beefheart to the UK.  He also championed Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James and other blues artists who had already been picked up on by John Mayall, Cream, The Rolling Stones & the Animals.  It was a shame that I couldn’t talk to John, but I felt close to him and I wanted to honour his memory and his massive legacy.  In the end I didn’t contact Sheila his widow, in case there were some restrictions or anxieties, but I did find a fan – Gray Newell -who had taped The Perfumed Garden and made CDs of about a dozen shows, recreated with mp3s of the songs he played. I’ll be forever grateful to Gray who very kindly sent me a handful of the CDs – treasure !  Like listening to Radio Caroline in 1966…

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Bob Silver, The Dawn Treader

We had a weekend rehearsal on the boat we would be shooting on in Portland harbour, Dorset.   All the boat cast were there, including Philip Seymour Hoffman who was playing the Count.  We were berthed in the cabins, complete with posh moisturiser and shampoo courtesy of Emma.

Innocence.  For some reason I had a little Brighton Beach Boys interview on my computer – me talking about 1966/67 and why we did these live shows presenting the pop highs of the era, Pet Sounds and Sgt Pepper, and I guess I felt it was so On Point that I offered it to the assembly.  Maybe I thought Richard would book us for the wrap party? (he didn’t).  Thinking back on it now it does seems like appalling hubris on my part.  But it was innocently offered to be fair.  We would be a community of sorts in the months that followed but – for me – we would never really gel together as a family, despite everything that was laid on for us, the best efforts of the producers and all the crew.   Early days we were all invited up to Eric Fellner’s Elizabethan mansion in Bucks to eat and drink and bond.  It was a stunning day with red kites landing on the lawn.  One of the lawns.

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Pressure – for a British film it had a big budget (£30 million), and although this was a subconscious pressure it was nevertheless there.  It was hard work and there was plenty of it.  We’d get ferried out to the boat every morning, and if you weren’t in the scene you’d hang out below deck or somewhere out of vision.  The crew was huge – but people didn’t want to be seen to be chatting and hanging out when they should be working.

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script supervisor Emma Thomas

Strangely on the very last day I was chatting to the script supervisor Emma Thomas who had been good fun & friendly throughout, and found that we had strong mutual friends, namely Paulette & Beverley Randall.

I discovered on the same day as the unit slowly relaxed that Luke the B-camera operator was my pal Jemma Redgrave’s brother!  I thought that showed how focussed we were, how tight everyone had been, that those cross-discipline friendships didn’t really happen even on a five month gig.  A shame.

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Philip Seymour Hoffman

Drugs.  Who knows, now that Phil is no longer with us, what he was doing and with whom on that gig.  There may have been an off-set hang that didn’t involve me, and this happens all the time in “real life” – if you don’t participate in other people’s drugs, you don’t get invited.  Fair enough.  Big LA thing, that is.  I don’t know.  Rest in peace lovely man.

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Phil, Tom W, Rhys, Rhys, Tom S, Chris, Ike, Nick, Katherine, me, Bill

Cast. The huge cast of name actors playing name DJs certainly was surreal.  I can’t put my finger on why that might be so.  Some competitive joke telling.  Who could make Philip Seymour Hoffman laugh the most.  Some scrambling for screentime in the big ensemble scenes.  Actually loads of that.  Who were they? Well,  Rhys Darby was recruited from Flight of the Conchords to play the Kenny Everett character.  He was shy like me I think.  And he pronounced six as sux.  Somehow Nick Frost, Chris O’ Dowd, Rhys Ifans and Tom Wisdom inhabited the souls of Dave Lee Travis, Tony Blackburn, Johnny Walker, Tony Prince, Simon Dee and Johnny Vance between them.

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Rhys Ifans

Rhys Ifans was zonked for most of the film, and after he split with Sienna Miller halfway-through the shoot even monosyllables were like gold dust.  I worked with him later (2014) on the show Elementary in New York, and he was sweet as a nut.  Bill Nighy played the owner, an oasis of calm and saturnine urbanity and like me, in his musical element.  The younger ones – Tom Sturridge who never bothered to befriend me at any point, Tom Brooke, Will Adamsdale, Katherine Parkinson, Ike Hamilton and Talulah Riley who did bless their cotton socks.

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Ike Hamilton, me, Tom Brooke

January Jones was delightful, but refused to reveal the secrets of Mad Men.   Kenneth Branagh was charm and warmth as ever, and dear Emma Thompson with whom I’d worked in France many years before was just gorgeous. (See My Pop Life #9).

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Ralph & Emma : we’d had sex in a previous film…

Me.  Perhaps it was me.  Not joining in as usual.  Method-acting a stoner hermit  who set himself aside from the gang in almost every way.  My first scene in the film is in the mess-hall where The Count, Philip Seymour Hoffman, says “hey man, who are you??” because I’m the invisible man on board.

Weeks later up on deck Phil and I were chatting about something, and as he turned away I heard him mutter under his breath “funny little, nerdy little guy“.   So I guess I never wandered too far from my character, and just didn’t join in much.  But then later he gave me the biggest hug.

The crew  included dear Christine Blundell on make-up, who had designed  my film New Year’s Day.   I love her, despite her Oscar.

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Christine Blundell – make-up dept.

And Joanna Johnson designed my hippy costume.  I’d hook up with her again on Jack The Giant Slayer, with an old friend of Jenny’s Fiona McCann

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Joanna Johnson & Fiona McCann – costume dept.

So mainly I suspect it was funny little nerdy little me, playing a music-loving hermit, spending the days asleep, the evenings preparing the show and the nights broadcasting.  Not really part of the pop radio scene.  When I did appear in scenes with the chaps my default was a kind of stoned shyness, mixed with hidden musical snobbery & arrogance of course.  Because my show went out between 3.00am and 6am I called it The Dawn Treader…after the Narnia cycle.

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Emma Freud

Emma Freud directed 2nd unit and was in fact, along with Richard Curtis himself, the friendliest person on the movie.  Probably the single best thing that happened to me on this job was her genius idea to film each of the DJs broadcasting their radio show for a whole hour.   The actors had to research and compile the show, source the vinyl and other bits & pieces, then learn how to use the equipment which we’d already done, and off we went in real time.  It was such a brilliant idea that none of it, as far as I know, made the final cut or indeed any DVD-extras footage.  Nevertheless we were not to know this.

Since I had quite a few episodes of The Perfumed Garden to listen to, I had a great template for The Dawn Treader show, but all the songs, album covers, anything I wanted to use had to be cleared by the companies who had copyright, by the lawyers, and by Richard himself.

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Art Department prop

For reasons that emanate from Bob Silver, The Dawn Treader himself, the character wanted to open this to-be-filmed show with Donovan’s Sunshine Superman. But before that – the intro music!! – the signature sound of the show which would be played every night.  I had a song in my collection called 3am Boogie by Willard McDaniel and blow me down if it didn’t sound EXACTLY like a radio show intro piece from 1967.   You’ll have to buy it though because it isn’t on Youtube I’m afraid.  Maybe Spotify.  What I knew though was that I had to have track one, side two of Are You Experienced? by Jimi Hendrix somewhere in there.  ‘May This Be Love’.  An album I owned already – but on Polydor.  When it came out in 1966 it was on Track Records, and since it would be on camera, that was the one I needed.  I soon discovered that it is something of a collector’s item.  I made a bid for it on ebay but it went for £600.  Whoosh.  Now what.  I visited one of the vinyl Emporia of Brighton’s North Laine, in particular Wax Factor, a kind of holygrail willywonka cave for vinyl junkies.

waxx8I told the man what I needed and he said he thought he could source a damaged copy for me, at a reduced price.  Sounded perfect. A few days later it was in my possession…

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It cost me £150.

I know that will shock some people but clearly in my secret heart I wanted to collect it.  I do have a beautiful vinyl collection.  ‘Course I do.  The other albums I bought for ‘research’ were the Captain Beefheart LP Safe As Milk, The Yardbirds first LP, Fresh Cream and Highway 61 Revisited, all reasonably priced.  And 45s of Pink Floyd, Jefferson AirplaneNina Simone & The Small Faces.   So here is The Dawn Treader hour – now a playlist on my computer, but in reality a set of vinyl records, 45s and LPs…

The Dawn Treader

intro : 3am Boogie : Willard McDaniel

Sunshine Superman  – Donovan

Alone Again Or  – Love

White Rabbit  –  Jefferson Airplane

{Reading from Alice Through the Looking Glass}

Eight Miles High  – The Byrds

May This Be Love   –   Jimi Hendrix

Here Come The Nice  –  Small Faces

Dust My Blues  –  John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers

Highway 61 Revisited  – Bob Dylan

Sure Nuff ‘N Yes I Do – Capt Beefheart

Pet Sounds – The Beach Boys

Hang On To A Dream  – Tim Hardin

Dreaming  – Cream

Water Woman  – Spirit

{Reading – Icarus Allsorts by Roger McGough

I Put A Spell On You  –  Nina Simone

Killing Floor  –   Howlin’ Wolf

Dedicated To The One I Love – The Mamas & the Papas

* * *

We recorded it in one take one afternoon, complete with letters from readers asking for The Strawberry Alarm Clock, weather reports, playing Howlin’ Wolf at the wrong speed “by mistake” – Peel was quite famous for this – poems, whimsy and some gentle self-reflexive humour. I do think it’s one of the most perfect things I’ve ever experienced – I don’t mean I was good at it, what I mean is that I revelled in it, the planning, designing, writing and recording of it.  Thankfully I’ve never had to watch it.  Or listen to it… I know we all dream of having a radio show – if you’re reading this it’s probably because you love music and share that same fantasy – well, lucky me, I got to do it for an hour.  Thanks Emma!   And thank you Richard for approving the idea, the playlist, the actor…

There was one last job I had to do – choose the LP which Bob would save from the water as the ship is sinking – a sequence where I carry a box of vinyl out of the cabin and suddenly disappear down into the hold and underwater, records floating everywhere.  Bob grabs one and he and his son surface together to be met by Nick Frost who takes the LP off me, glances at it and throws it back into the water.  I chose The Incredible String Band‘s record “The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion” mainly because it had a good cover but also because I don’t like it very much.

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Peel loved this band and really gave them a push but I’ve never been able to listen to more than half of a song.  It was a good gag in the film, but I couldn’t do that to a Bob Dylan album for example (one of the suggestions!)  Sacrilege.  Well, I could’ve done, but I didn’t.  The record I’m listening to as my son rushes in and scratches to tell me we are sinking is The Grateful Dead first LP, also accurate to Peel’s (and Bob Harris’) taste.

The underwater sequence dubbed into Italian

All I had to do then was the acting.

We were in Weymouth for the first part of the shoot, a lovely English seaside resort with a harbour at Portland where the Radio Rock boat was moored offshore, and plenty of welcoming pubs.

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Chester and Jenny came to Weymouth for a week

Later we went to Shepperton Studios to film all the interiors.  Meanwhile in real life, god-daughter Delilah-Rose was three months old…

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I discovered during filming that Richard Curtis was at the same level of music nerd enthusiasm as I – vividly illustrated in the finished product, which bangs seven shades of sugary shit as a musical evocation of the mid-sixties.  The soundtrack is exquisite, and the filming of needles being gently lowered onto vinyl singles has never been bettered.  I can’t say fairer than that.  We discussed our passion in quiet breaks., and one morning after we’d finished shooting the film the doorbell rang and there was a cardboard package “fragile” delivered to my hand – a framed, signed photo of The Beach Boys.  Sent from Richard Curtis.  I thought, that’s a flagrant short-cut to my heart, how very dare you !

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Richard had a laser operation on his eyes before shooting so he didn’t need glasses

There’s a point in the script where Simple Simon (Chris O’ Dowd) is to marry Elenore (January Jones) and all the other DJs take him on a stag night ashore through London’s West End, via Paul McCartney’s house in St John’s Wood (where he lived in 1967 round the corner from Abbey Road Studios).  Paul didn’t like the scene where The Count pays homage to the Gods of Pop because he didn’t like fans outside his house, and George Harrison had recently been attacked in his house, so he veto’d it.  But all the scenes we did shoot that night – it was an all-nighter – were to the musical accompaniment of The Beatles’ I Should Have Known Better a kick-arse John Lennon song from A Hard Day’s Night.  So – literally – all night long, there would be : turn over, sound speed, mark it, music: BEATLES and then Action!   We walked to the beat of Ringo, we got drunk to John’s harmonica, we crawled out of pubs to George’s guitar solo, we fell into star shapes at the National Gallery at dawn in Trafalgar Square to Paul’s harmonies.  And it never made the film. A different song is on that sequence : Lazy Sunday by the Small Faces.  Which has exactly the same BPM. By necessity !

Richard told me later that it was too expensive – around £400,000 for a Beatles song – then years later said that Paul didn’t want it in the film.  I don’t know.  But what I do know is that a film about Radio Caroline & 60s pop music Has To Have A Beatles Song In It Somewhere.  Surely.  But : you can get ten great songs vs one Beatles song for that price.  I’ve never had to make that call.

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Tamana Bleasdale, Alan’s daughter, working as a PA

I found it righteously difficult to choose a song to illustrate this entry.  So many to choose from.  In the end, to honour John Peel himself, I chose the song which he turned me onto.  Not something I loved anyway.  I didn’t care for a lot of Peel’s musical taste, but I liked him tremendously.  He supported independent record labels after the punk explosion, and even played songs from unsigned bands to the nation.  He encouraged the great Viv Stanshall to record Sir Henry At Rawlinson End for the radio, and the result was never bettered, not by the album or the film of that mythical hero.  Peel had a vast musical appetite and an extremely wide musical taste.  It was an honour to bob on the same coastal waters as the great man.   And if there’s a little Bob Harris smudged in there to blur the lines, so much the better, for his radio show remains one of the finest ways to spend a couple of hours in the UK.  Again, like John, a supporter of the music first and foremost.

 

 

My Pop Life #202 : O Caroline – Matching Mole

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O Caroline – Matching Mole

David’s on piano, and I may play on a drum
And we’ll try to make the music work, we’ll try to have some fun
But I just can’t help thinking that if you were here with me
I’d get all my thoughts in focus and play more excitingly

I love you still, Caroline
I want you still, Caroline
I need you still, Caroline

*

Tuesday 27th March 2018

This song broke me today.  Random shuffle brought Peter Gabriel, Coleman Hawkins, ELO and then suddenly – what’s this?  Through the years it came, I knew the chorus before it got there, not the words.  It is always the music that I remember.  Almost always.  I didn’t remember it, still don’t really.  But I knew it.

I’ve been doing my tax for a week now, searching through receipts from 2017 – UK bank account, US credit Union, Amex, little faded pieces of paper from Virginia, South Carolina, Guadeloupe, Prague, New York, London, Brighton, Liverpool, my entire year in spending and then all the W2s from the various people I worked for, residuals, royalties, rent from Brighton, everything.  Working on Excel a spreadsheet software.  Going cross-eyed.  Feeding the cats.  Feeding myself.  Face-Timing Jenny once a day in London, rehearsing for The Way of the World at the Donmar.  Helping Johanna with her electricity cut-off.  Going to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child with Cush Jumbo Sean Griffin and Rose Leslie on Saturday as a break from the numbers.  Meeting the cast afterwards, including friend Noma Dumesweni whom Jenny and I had dinner with earlier in the year.  Marvelling at all the magic in the show.  Going bonkers trying to access my new bank account online, a tedious crink in the matrix which has been unfurling for over a month now, since Johanna and I were down in Savannah shooting an Ang Lee movie with Will Smith called Gemini Man.  I have two scenes left to shoot.  Waiting for the sub-zero temperatures to finally leave us and spring to appear.  Dealing with one of my hard drives crashing and losing all my music, again.  Slowly rebuilding the music library, again.  Losing the W2 forms, again.  A cycle of concentration at the computer screen. Sleeping for hours every night, waking up exhausted.

Then this song signalled a break.  It gently announced hope, spring, memory, sadness, love.

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It’s a lovely song.  The voice is Robert Wyatt. The band is Matching Mole.  When did I hear it ?  1972 probably when it came out.  1973 maybe. Where?  No idea.  I was at school then, 15/16 years old.  The vocal is remarkably delicate, plaintive, unique.  Wyatt was previously in Canterbury band Soft Machine a kind of jazz/rock combo whom I never really got into, where he played drums with Kevin Ayers and Daevid Allen.

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Matching Mole, 1971

Then he formed this band using the French for Soft Machine – Machine Molle – as the band’s name.  They made 2 LPs, and while recording their third album he fell out of a 4th floor window drunk and lost the use of his legs.  Various friends – Jean Shrimpton, Nick Mason, John Peel, Julie Christie – supported Wyatt through this period.  He abandoned Matching Mole and made solo records Rock Bottom (a stunning record which was written before the fall and recorded after it) and Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard and then had a hit single : a strange wistful cover of  I’m A Believer – the Monkees song – appearing on Top of the Pops in a wheelchair despite the BBC’s objections.  Another single Yesterday Man got some radio play too. He played & still plays with many friends & collaborators including Brian Eno, Ivor Cutler, Henry Cow, Phil Manzanera, Carla Bley, Mike Oldfield, although Cutler passed in 2006.

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Later Wyatt became, like most of us in the late 70s, a more political animal as perfectly illustrated by his lead vocal on Shipbuilding, Elvis Costello’s emotional and angry reaction to the Falklands/Malvinas war of 1981.  He was by now a member of the Communist Party, and made more committed songs like Venceremos with Working Week, and the communist anthem Red Flag on his compilation album Nothing Can Stop Us which also included a remarkable cover of Chic’s At Last I Am Free, perhaps his signature song.  He is now a national treasure, guest editing Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme, curating the Meltdown Festival and recording with Björk, David Gilmour and Max Richter among others.

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Robert Wyatt in 2015

This song is impossible to categorise for me, or match to any particular memory and thus hovers as a pure emotional response to music.  I’ve listened to it half a dozen times since that first beam of sunshine through the mist, each time the notes weave their magic through the air, making me feel indefinable things from my past and lift me up in the present, the voice both delicate and yet persistent, open and exposed, vulnerable but clear, reminding me that music heals, lifts, soothes, and is ultimately inexplicable and mystifying.

Sometimes that is enough

My Pop Life #187 : Groovy Little Thing – Beres Hammond

Groovy Little Thing   –   Beres Hammond

*

It was around 4am on a Sunday morning at Club 61 and we were close to running out of vodka.  Paulette had been making caipirinha for the drinking of the 5000 since 8pm : crushed ice, lime, sugar and vodka instead of cachaça – the London way, the Club 61 way.  People were dancing, smooching, smoking, DJing, talking shit, talking love, arguing, sharing.  Beverley was there, Jenny was there, Elaine the sweet, David the intellectual, Eugene the cynic, Sharon the comic, Debbie & Jacqui & Attlee the cousins,  many others.  I was drunk, stoned, happy.  The Fatback Band were playing I Feel Lovin’ : hands and voices were raised, the heart and soul of the party, the centre of the sacred ritual.  But the loving was always short-lived because surely Louis Prima would be next with I Ain’t Got Nobody, which would be celebrated with even more gusto, just as a wake is more drunken and raucous than a wedding.

Miss P

The party breathes, the tide goes out, the phases of the moon.  In the next lull, Paulette and I are in the kitchen talking family.  She confides that her mum has taken a bad turn in Jamaica where she lives and probably won’t make it to Christmas.  We hug.  A proper squeeze.   The plan is to go out to Jamaica to bury her, when the moment comes.  I promise to go with her and Beverley when that moment arises.

London 2005

About a fortnight later we touch down in Montego Bay and get a taxi across the island to Treasure Beach on the southern coast.  Paulette and Beverley, with cousins Debbie, Jaqui & Attlee, and me.   I think I was sharing a room with Bev & P, and the other three were in a next room but I cannot remember.  We certainly all spent any hotel time in that one room, drinking rum & coca cola, rum & ginger, rum & orange or rum & sprite.

St Elizabeths parish, SW Jamaica

The days go like this : Jason the driver turns up after breakfast and we pile into the transport and drive off to see an auntie – either Magdelen, who lives halfway up the hill, Vadne who lives at the top of the hill or Vera who was on the family land.  Or Merline, or Loretta.  Aunties for days.  Greetings, hugs, an offering of drinks, some food perhaps.  Cigarette smoking outside on the porch.   Funeral arrangements being made – not by me (ever) but by the sisters from England and the aunties from Jamaica.  Family politics.  Where is the goat coming from? Who is carrying the coffin?  Who is singing?  After a while we drive off again, get some more food in a bar, watch the green sweep of the rural landscape as it tumbles over red earth down to the Caribbean sea.  A stunningly beautiful island, poverty everywhere.

Jason played the same tape in his transport pretty much every day.  It started with Beres HammondGroovy Little Thing‘ which is why this song reminds me so heavily of this trip.  We would be on the rum all day pretty much.  Driving around.  Kids would crowd round whenever we went to Miss Edna’s house – Paulette & Beverley’s mum lived in a two-room wooden house on some land near Pedro Plains, green green grass, red red earth, chickens, kids, people waving, coming to meet us, we were the English relations.  The size of the small house was important, as I will relate later.

This picture reminds me of Miss Edna’s house in Jamaica, but it may have been smaller than this

Enough room for a bed, some chest of drawers and a wardrobe, a table, a chair.  Outside the kids are amazing as kids always are… “him have coolie hair” is their greeting for me… “wass your name?“.  Not at any stage in Jamaica am I described or treated like a white person. There are plenty of white Jamaicans of course but the kids pick up on my Indian not-curly hair which was more interesting than my pale skin.  We meet a white Jamaican called Mas Ralph who insists that my actual name is Rolph. There is a photo of us somewhere, an actual photo, wherever photos live these days.

Lovers Leap

In fact there are plenty of actual photos of this trip, from before I had a digital camera.  I’m writing this in Charleston, South Carolina and all my pictures are in a box in the attic in Brighton, England.  I’ll do me best !  It is a very visual two weeks, faces mainly but we also do some stuff – go to Lover’s Leap on the coast – a huge clifftop walk, and same day inland to YS Falls where I jump into the waterfall off a rope swing and sit on a rock, both in St Bess parish where we are based.

We head back to Sunset Resort on Great Bay loaded up with snacks and drinks and download the day.  Sometimes we go out in the evening – one bar deep in the bush was memorable for the DJ dropping dancehall tunes and the varied clientele including ladies of the night, children, mums and grandads all gently moving to the reggae beat.  I loved it.

And as time slips by towards the Nine Night, family tensions surface as they do, and dip over my head, or round my backside, since they don’t involve me but only concern what is expected of people and what is delivered. And each night was counting towards Nine.

Treasure Beach is where it says Calabash Bay on the map

Miss Edna’s good friend is called Guilty and he lives not far from Treasure Beach, in Great Bay.  Paulette Bev and I ended up at his house one night.  The sun had set.  Cicadas.  A pale blue light on the porch as he rolled a giant cone of weed.  Guilty is a rastafarian.  He cooks us ital food – clean, vegetarian, naturality, Vital without the V, the I & I denoting I-man’s connection to the universe.  Ital = no salt, no chemicals, no flesh, no blood,  no alcohol, no cigarettes and no drugs (herbs are not considered drugs).
We smoked.  Even Bev and P smoked. The only time I have ever seen it.  There was rum too, but Guilty did not he drink it.  But another cone was smoked – and Bev and P decline this time around, because they are higher than the moon already, which is pretty high and casting a pale light across Guilty’s strange garden.  The music is fantastic  – a modest sound system, nothing fancy but the sounds are profound. Righteous.  I am baked.  I mean, frankly I am close to panic, the rising feeling inside my chest not to be suppressed, allowing it to flow, allowing yourself to know, allowing it to go up up and away as high as you can pray and trust.  You will not fall away.  I have never ever been so stoned in all my born days.  It feels appropriate.  Beyond high.  Brave.  To boldly go.  Posing the question : how long can you keep hold of the rope ?  And so on.  We walked back a couple of miles to the hotel, blissful and baked to a T.

The Nine Night is upon us.  It was up on the property on the red earth.  The sun has set.  Paulette and Beverley are inside the house for much of the time, with the aunties, and that means it is pretty crowded already.  I say hello to each auntie and back out into the night again where there are now hundreds of people under the starlight eating curry goat – the same goat I had not witnessed being bought – callaloo, breadfruit and plantain, rice and peas of course, red stripe beer, a sound system playing tunes further down the hill, older folk sitting under an awning with bibles, reading psalms and singing hymns as they are fed rum, a frenzy of eating, drinking and religion : it is quite extraordinary.

Paulette & Bev at Sharon’s wedding in 2005

A group of younger people have come from over the mountain – Ginger Hill – where Miss Edna spent some time earlier in her life and they remember her.  Dirt poor. They’ve made the journey.  They don’t know anyone here.  Neither do I.  Doesn’t matter.  Feels like I talk to everyone.  Sing a hymn.  Drink rum. Smoke weed.  Sway.  Feel sad, feel open.  Fight gently through the people trying to get into the house, impossible, but get in somehow, see Paulette and Bev again, surrounded by women, weeping together, we hug, we kiss.  Go outside again and find Jaqui & Debbie sat down on the porch, in awe at this community that I find myself among.   Then suddenly a drum-beat starts up, a shuffle and a chant.  It becomes louder and louder, and clearer.  It is coming from the Ginger Hill mob.  About thirty of them, drumming on trash cans, pieces of wood, buckets and drums they have brought with them, and they chant :

“…cyaan get inna Miss Edna house, cyaan get inna Miss Edna house…”

It is eerie and powerful and honest.  The house is too small and they’ve been politely turned away.  A shiver goes  down my spine and I force force my way back inside again to see Bev and P : “you’ve got to come out and see this” and so they do.

And we laugh.  Hug again and laugh.  Amid the hymns, the crying aunties, the freeloading anybodys, the foreign relatives, the kids, the gravediggers, casket carriers and Guilty the sweet rastafarian philosopher, it seems as fitting a tribute to Miss Edna as you could get.  For philosophically speaking, none of us could get into Miss Edna’s house anymore.

The next day is the service at the Christadelphian Meeting Hall in Round Hill, St Elizabeth parish.  It is hot hot. Everyone is now dressed proper, shirt, suit, tie, shoes. Hats.  Fans gently beating across aunty’s faces.  The pallbearers are six nephews – Clive, Neville and Nesbert Powell and George, Kenneth and Vernan Legister.  They carry her in and lay her down in front of us.  It is November 10th 2002, but the Order of Service programmes has the date September 11th, misprinted (rather spookily) by Mr Bolt the funeral director.

Paulette and Beverley both speak about their mum in the service.  They are brave. Cashell and Crystal are trying to speak, two little girls, but they are crying too much and abandon the attempt, have us all in floods.  The casket is hoisted onto the six nephews shoulders again and we travel back down the hill to the property where the night before such scenes had unfurled.  The kids keep us all real – Full Mouth who had a great deal of teeth, and unrepentant farter Force Ripe.  I suppose their name for me is Coolie Hair.

A cousin named Bones has dug the grave deep into the red earth, and we gather around the grave to sing once more and pray together.  More tears now, less restraint.  More Jamaica, less England.  People shouting goodbye as the coffin is lowered on ropes into the deep hole, men pass the shovel around and cover the coffin with earth, I join in, grateful for the physical effort to channel my quivering energy.  Did the sisters also shovel some earth into the grave ?  I may be confusing that detail from their father’s funeral which was a year or so earlier in London.  I become transfixed with the colour of the dirt and sequester a small black plastic bag full which I transport back to Brighton with me.  I’m not sure though that I have ever planted anything in it.  What a strange man I am.

Guilty painted the tomb for Miss Edna and subsequently disappeared, we don’t know where he is now.  Miss Vadne still lives up the hill in Southfield.  I haven’t been back to Jamaica but I will go one day.  It was my tenth Caribbean island trip.  They’re all quite different in many ways.  Cuba is extraordinary – I wrote about it in My Pop Life #173 –  and Trinidad & Tobago was an amazing trip in 1993 – My Pop Life #184.  I haven’t written about St Lucia yet – where Jenny’s parents come from, and we’ve visited three times together.  On one visit we took a boat to Martinique. We’ve also holidayed at different times in Barbados, St. Kitts & Nevis, Antigua and the Dominican Republic when my brother Paul was living in Santo Domingo.  It’s an incredible part of the world.  But Jamaica is the island where I felt most at home. Perhaps the intensity of the trip opened me up in a different way – or perhaps it just has a special kind of atmosphere which I picked up on.  I was in the bush – the countryside – and was with people whose relatives live there.  The same is true of St Lucia, and Trinidad of course.  I don’t know.       I just know that Jamaica cast a spell over me.

Beres Hammond is amazing by the way – this is an early cut from the 2nd LP –  a soulful purveyor of Lovers Rock through to more conscious styles on albums such as Music Is Life in 2001 which Jenny and I waxed and rinsed when it came out.  We saw him at the Greek Theatre in Griffith Park in 2003 on a reggae extravaganza night – a beautiful open air amphitheatre, we walked from our apartment on Live Oak Drive on a balmy July night, perched above Los Feliz, and there was Beres Hammond live onstage, what joy – supporting the legendary I-Three Marcia Griffith and the Marley boys Stephen, Kymani and Damian Marley – Junior Gong – who was showcasing his new album Welcome To Jamrock.  Quite a night.

I appreciate and give thanks for all my blessings, all my friends, all my musical experiences, for my life has been rich and full of joy.  Even the tragedy and sorrow of the death of my beautiful friends Paulette and Beverley’s mother turned somehow into a thing of such great beauty.   We are separate but always connected.

My Pop Life #185 : Between The Wars – Billy Bragg

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Between The Wars   –   Billy Bragg

Call up the craftsmen bring me the draughtsmen build me a path from cradle to grave     and I’ll give my consent to any government that does not deny a man a living wage

*

I wrote the piece below in the Spring of 1985 as this song was released. I was 27.

*

Blackpool.  Monday afternoon,  a wet October,  1984

Six actors, a director and a writer meet each other in the lounge of the Pendale Hotel (just off the town map) and plan their assault on the Labour Party Conference :  the largest collection of journalists to be found outside of a Fleet Street pub.  Our mission: to explore their world, their obsessions.  We have (valued possessions) press passes saying ‘Joint Stock’ pinned to our clothing, currently providing simple entry to the Winter Gardens.  We are naive, optimistic, nervous, brave.  We move in.

A fringe meeting upstairs from the bar is getting underway.  Entrance is through a sea of leaflets thrusting at you from Nicaragua to the Kent coalfields.  Inside, a large surreal Spanish galleon of a room is filling up.  TV cameras at the front, lights.  A sense of excitement.  The speakers tonight are Livingstone, Benn & Scargill.  I am looking for journalists.  What do they wear?  How do they talk?  Who do they vote for?  Why are they journalists?  Will they even talk to me?  I see two, identifiable by their press passes, and sit down next to them, a youngish woman and an older bespectacled man.

Hello,’  I offer boldly.  ‘Can I talk to you?‘  They look at me.  I launch in.  ‘My name is Ralph Brown and I’m up in Blackpool with Joint Stock Theatre Group and we’re researching a play about journalists and we don’t know what it’s about yet, and can I talk to you?’   They are both from The Sunday Times, covering the conference – she is on the Insight team, he is the local man in Lancashire.

‘We set the agenda for this conference’ he claims, ‘Three weeks ago our front page said Kinnock would be in trouble on three fronts at this conference – the police, the miners, the local authorities.  And that’s the way the conference will go.’  He evidently felt that this was the legitimate role of the paper, but perhaps feeling he had said too much started to move away.  ‘Talk to Ros,’ he said, ‘she’s the expert on the miner’s strike.’  Could I meet him later I asked, at the Imperial Hotel perhaps?  He smiled and nodded and moved off. The woman grabbed my arm. ‘Do you know who that is?’ she whispered.  ‘He’s the one you want to talk to. That’s Michael Jones, political editor of The Sunday Times.’  I was going to have to be a little smarter over the course of the next three weeks.  There was a stirring at the front of the hall.  Scargill was entering – he timed it well, and the room erupted as their hero moved onto the platform. The feeling was quite extraordinary. Suddenly the press became noticeable leaning against walls, slouching in chairs, bored. Even so, notebooks were produced, pens from inside pockets, and attention brightened a little: the studied boredom of their poses couldn’t quite smother the sense of history.

Arthur Scargill, leader of the miner’s union at the Labour Party Conference, 1984

Later, the bar and foyer of the Imperial Hotel provided the true flavour of the conference. The place was full of journalists and politicians, and Joint Stock valiantly camoflauged within.  Peter Hillmore (Observer) peered at my press pass suspiciously, exchanged a sentence with me and decided there were more important people to talk to. Sir Robin Day was decidedly the worse for wear and tottering on the steps with a young woman in black. I cornered Mick Costello, industrial editor of the Morning Star, smoking cigars and hobnobbing happily with capitalist comrades from the Telegraph and the Express. In fact there was an awful lot of hobnobbing going on. I think everyone there was drunk. I met Michael Jones again, he welcomed me with open arms, told me the play didn’t have a hope of understanding “the relationship between me and the office”, confessed to always having had ambitions to being one of the opinion-forming elite, and wished me the very best of luck, young man.  ‘Of course, it’s very different when the Tories are here,’ a wobbling hack confided.  ‘Last year it was wonderful though, Parkinson – you remember?‘ Little did he suspect that the Tories would provide the best story for a decade only ten days later.

       

    It was Scargill’s week, undoubtedly. Adulated by conference, hated and adored by the press, ‘Coal Not Dole’ stickers everywhere and buckets being rattled at every door.  Quite a time.  We all had our adventures.  Simon Curtis followed a Sun reporter for one afternoon hoping to catch some juicy bit or other, and was spotted trying to listen in on a conversation.  I was finally confronted by this man, a stocky Scot, who told me that if my friend didn’t lay off he would receive a crack on the head.  I talked to him.  I was getting quite good at asking the right questions.  He told me how he’d always wanted to be a policeman and had fallen into journalism at a Spencer Davis concert in Glasgow.

The Joint Stock method meant that observation was crucial.  Each morning, we would present, one at a time, a character we had encountered the day before, with close attention to detail: accent, hand movements, figures of speech etc. Sometimes we would write notes. I found it easier and more accurate to rely on memory. If more than one of us had been there, we could present the group with a ‘scene’.  We slowly discovered which questions and lines of conversation gave the best ‘results’, but it was always the unexpected, the surprising, which caught the imagination of the group. It was for me a wonderfully exciting way to work.

Robert Maxwell, Mirror owner in July 1984

My final memory of Blackpool was a Daily Mirror press conference called by Robert Maxwell to present a granny from Essex with a huge cheque for one million pounds for winning Mirror bingo.  The scene was grotesque, and made its way into Deadlines – the play which resulted from this workshop – in all its surreal horror, with myself playing the elephantine Maxwell. I remember the poor woman standing there, with cameras clicking, TV arc lights, microphones and questions, a glass of champagne glued into her hand, a frozen smile on her bewildered face.  She turned to Marge Proops (Mirror Women’s Page) standing next to her and asked if it was all right for her to have a sip. Later, Kathryn Pogson and I spoke to her daughter. ‘ You’re not from The Sun are you? We’ve been told not to answer any questions.’   We explained that we were actors doing research and suddenly the woman recognised Kathryn: ‘You were on TV weren’t you?’  She immediately relaxed and took us into her confidence. ‘They’ve been ever so good. We’ve been to four hotels in four days. We had the phone call saying we’d won, and they just said pack a suitcase. We left the washing in the machine.’  Her son was whimpering. ‘Shut up,‘ said his dad, ‘I’ve bought you loads of things today.’  They had just won a million pounds. Mirror men were gently ushering people to a photocall with the trams. ‘Let’s hope we’ve got more friends than enemies’ was the daughters final thought as Kathryn and I left for the Big Dipper.

The local Sheffield paper : me, Paul Jesson, a journalist, Stephen Wakelam, Tricia Kelly, Alan David

The company left for Sheffield, the heart of the miner’s strike, and spent two days at the local paper – the Morning Telegraph and the Sheffield Star the evening version, who shared the same office, again asking questions and listening.  I suggested to the industrial editor (‘a close friend of Arthur‘ someone whispered) that being a local reporter was something of a luxury, being able to be accurate and honest and truthful. ‘No,‘ he said, ‘I just have to live here.’  It was becoming increasingly difficult to parry the obvious question: “What is the play about?”  We really had no idea, and the people we talked to, especially the journalists, couldn’t accept this.  ‘You’re going to expose us, aren’t you? All the drink and sex.’  And in truth we were beginning to behave more and more like journalists: finding ways of making people talk, being persistent, looking for angles.

The most famous photograph from the 1984-5 miner’s strike

Director Simon Curtis and I visited some picket lines at Maltby and Silverwood collieries and spent one afternoon talking to two miners who were on strike, one of whom, Jim, became a character in the play.  Throughout the two and a half hour conversation, Simon had been fingering a five pound note in his pocket, preparing to give it to the fund before he left. ‘Do you have a collection?‘ he asked the young miner. ‘Sure, just give it to me, we’ll mek sure it gets t’ reght place.‘  Simon pulled out his note and offered it. They both looked at it.  It was a twenty pound note. (more like a hundred pounds in today’s money). ‘Oh‘ said the miner.  Simon’s eyes glazed over. ‘Oh thanks a lot‘ said the miner. Simon’s fingers released the note, and he smiled weakly.  We drove off, Simon in some shock.

The company then moved to the hustle and bustle of London, Fleet Street, the TV Studios and radio stations.  The journey was important. The people we’d talked to 200 miles north were filtered and made into ‘news’ down here in the capital.  Stephen Wakelam (the writer) was particularly affected by this geographical change, and the play’s sweep covers the quiet of the South Yorkshire countryside to the claustrophobic newsrooms of London.  My favourite place was BBC Newsnight. ‘We’re doing a play about the media’ I offered as an introduction to Howard, sleeveless-jerseyed, Guardian-reading type. He swung round in his typical journalists swing-round chair. ‘Media!’ He glared at me, managing to look totally harmless. ‘Don’t lump us in with the bloody Express, Mirror and Beano.  This is a television news programme.’ 

   Presenter Peter Snow (right) had an SDP poster up in the room where he was working. I desperately wanted to ask him if it was his, but couldn’t find the words. It was very very difficult to ask journalists about their politics. They pretended they didn’t have any. Or they said ‘I’m nosy’ or ‘I’m an observer.’  Others were more approachable, notably those at The Express, where a considerable number of the writers are members of the Labour Party!  I was devastated by this disclosure, although the Express journalists I spoke to found it totally normal : ‘It’s the same at the Mail, the Sun, the Telegraph. You’ve got to earn a living.‘ I suggested the two things might be incompatible. ‘I’ve never written a word against the Labour Party in twelve years on the Express.’  The man seemed proud of this, as if his principles were still intact.  Fiona Millar, one of the few women on the paper had an even worse situation, surrounded by pin-ups, being given the Royal stories or the animal stories because of her gender.  ‘My generation is terribly disappointed in the profession we’ve joined,‘ she told me.  She is in her late twenties, and moved from the local paper to Fleet Street just as it was going down the drain : bingo, tits and circulation wars.  She was consoled by the fact that the Express was ‘a writer’s paper’ rather than a subeditor’s paper.  Subeditors – the back bench – are a strange group of men (invariably) who sift the paras, reorganise the stories, and in many cases rewrite according to the paper’s politics.

The Sun was more difficult.  We trooped up to the office and were told to wait by the door.  We huddled there, feeling like intruders. A nervous face told us about The Sun glancing over his shoulder now and again. One of us was escorted to the toilet and back. We were not allowed to talk to any journalists.  The face we were talking to had a plastic smile which it kept putting on to reassure us, and only succeeded in totally unnerving us. ‘We are a family newspaper. We never print anything unless it’s checked. We write for an average reading age of eight.‘ He did, however, tell us the name of the cabinet minister whom the whole of Fleet Street knew was fucking small boys. And somehow, this one rather sordid point was a believable oasis in the desert of his insincerity.

And so to the Tories.  We took it in turns to visit the Tory Conference in Brighton (only had two press passes) and Tricia Kelly and I found ourselves on the train down just hours after an IRA bomb had wrecked the Grand Hotel.  There was security everywhere. The atmosphere inside the conference hall was extraordinary. Resilience, survivors. Thatcher got an emotional standing ovation just for being there. Tricia and I felt like enemies of the people in the midst of the mob, protected by the legitimate neutrality of our press passes. It meant we didn’t have to applaud. We could look cool and detached and professional. This was a relief. Thatcher was finally introduced as ‘a great statesman’ and she spoke for the whole hall about Tebbit’s bravery, property, owners and earners, and got a massive, absurd standing ovation at the end. Tricia made our way to the door and stopped to watch this display of political football hooliganism.  We were ushered out by a rather embarrassed man, as if this was a private Tory moment not to be witnessed by the unfaithful.

Grand Hotel, Brighton, the morning after an IRA bomb, October 1984

   We moved out onto the beach.  The Grand Hotel had a huge hole knocked out of it, the beach was roped off, police were everywhere. Earlier, I had tried to have a few words with  of the Observer, one of our contacts.  ‘Haven’t got time,‘ he said, rushing away. ‘Best story for twenty-five years.‘  There were journalists everywhere.  Every paper and TV station had quintupled its Brighton staff. By now, we Joint Stockers were behaving like journalists ourselves, moving towards huddles of people instinctively for titbits trading information, becoming strangely distanced from the event. The process was not dissimilar : the workshop, the story.

I remember the feeling standing on Brighton beach, so clearly. An exhilarating sense of history. It was all happening around me: the strike, the conferences, the bomb. I felt at the centre of the universe.

*

Jenny Stoller, Tricia Kelly and Amelda Brown in Caryl Churchill’s ‘Fen’

*

Summer 2017 – Brooklyn

The piece above was the last chapter in The Joint Stock Book, published by Methuen in 1997 and reprinted here for information. I do not claim copyright.  I think the book is now out of print.  Subtitled The Making Of A Theatre Collective, the book is a tribute to the working method of Joint Stock, a unique theatre collective in the UK as I was starting out in the 1980s.  It started around 1974 and had built a formidable reputation for itself as a producing house for new, often devised work.   The company operated as a self-managing collective with only one permanent member of staff, the administrator, everyone else was invited to meetings and made decisions, on a collective level.  I met a lot of very good people over the three years that I was involved with Joint Stock, including my next girlfriend, Rita Wolf, who had been in Borderline written by Hanif Kureishi and was thus on the collective.  The book contains contributions from members of the collective about the work of the company, ranging from Max Stafford-Clark to Roger Lloyd-Pack to Bill Gaskill to Caryl Churchill to Kenny Ireland to Danny Boyle to Miriam Margoyles to Pauline Melville.  It remains for me the finest way to create a play, both as an actor and as a writer.  I was lucky enough to do both – the play Sanctuary came two years later in 1987 – Deadlines premiered in Sheffield in February 1995 before touring the UK.  Both plays were written about and for a community : journalists and homeless youth.  Later in 1985 Jane Thornton wrote Amid The Standing Corn about the miner’s wives for Joint Stock.  She is from Yorkshire where my dad lives now (married to a Barnsley lass, dear Beryl) and Jane is also married to a Yorkshireman John Godber who is instrumental in my working life (A Clockwork Orange, Up’n’Under).  A strain of decency and pride running through the county.  I think the most rewarding part of both Deadlines and Sanctuary for me  were the nights when the community came to see the play they’d helped create.  When the journalists at the Sheffield Star came to the Crucible Theatre, sitting alongside striking miners and their familes.   When the homeless familes and charities like Centrepoint London came to The Drill Hall for a benefit one night to see themselves represented onstage.  The highest form of emotion.  Lucky to have experienced it twice.  To think that Thatcher had called the National Union of Mineworkersthe enemy within‘ still makes me enraged to a level which frightens me to this day.  Turbulent times.  A historic defeat.  La lotta continua.  Here’s Billy.

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