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.

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

LicheinsteinintheskywithDiamonds

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 emotional.  Lucky to have experienced it twice.  To think that Thatcher had called the National Union of Mineworkers ‘the 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.

My Pop Life #184 : Mystery Band – Lord Kitchener

Mystery Band   –   Lord Kitchener

    Pan beating all night in de dry river, We all hearing but can’t see this orchestra  

*

  Another thing confusing the whole public : you can only hear the pan when rain fall

*

We hearing pan – but can’t see the band 

*

First things first.  Pan = Steel pan.  The national music of Trinidad.  Steel Band Music.   Various stick fighting and bamboo-based African customs were banned in Trinidad around 1880 because of the Camboulay riots, but the tradition went underground and re-emerged in the hillside region of Laventille above capital city Port Of Spain, being internationalized by the US forces after WW2.  From the late 40s (a time period referenced in this amazing song) to the present day, steel pan have been played all year round and particularly at Carnival, which usually falls in February.  They were historically made from discarded oil-drums with chromatic indentations beaten into the base, played with rubber-topped sticks.  Nowadays they are made to specification.  They are an astoundingly exciting instrument for many reasons.  First – steelpan is the most recent addition to the orchestra, and the only ‘new’ instrument added in the 20th century.  Second – anyone can learn to play it – and thus the huge steelpan orchestras of Trinidad who compete every year in Panorama for the crown.  These can contain up to two hundred people.   Third – any style of music can and is played – from jazz to filmscores to classical to latin.  Panorama is almost exclusively made up of calypso tunes, however, the steelpan is not confined to caribbean music.

I wrote a bit about Panorama and our visit to Trinidad in 1993 in My Pop Life #4, discussing Mighty Sparrow and the carnival.  We spent two weeks on Tobago having a holiday, then two weeks with Felix Cross’ parents Marie and Felix Sr.,  in the beautiful Santa Cruz valley just outside Port of Spain.  Went to Laventille one day to watch the steelpan rehearsals which take place every evening pre-carnival and which are open to spectators with beer, rum, roti and chicken being served to an enthusiastic crowd in the bleachers.   Felix we knew from theatre land in London – he was a composer and director and he had organised and rehearsed the choir for our wedding the year before, (composed of our friends and family) and then been forced to play the organ in the church because the organist didn’t turn up on the day!  Only about 150 yards away from the poor singers !  It all sounded beautiful of course…

Jouvert, the night before Mardi Gras in Port of Spain, is an all-night affair

Back in Trinidad, we went to the beach, we went on a boat trip near the Venezualan islands, did some natural history and hung around the capital.  Felix and I participated in Jouvert, described in My Pop Life #4.  Once carnival started we were joined by other London folk, namely Michael Buffong who was holidaying on his parent’s island of Grenada just up the road, and Rudolph Walker, one of Trinidad’s finest exports.   Michael was a member of The Possee, a sketch show gang of black actors who took London by storm in the late 1980s and included Gary MacDonald, Roger Griffith, Jenny’s cousin Victor Romero Evans, Robbie Gee, Eddie Nestor, Brian Bovell and Sylvester Williams.  We saw them regularly together at Stratford East, The Tricycle and then individually in other plays around town in the 1980s.

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Michael Buffong, Artistic Director of Talawa Theatre

Michael Buffong would later turn his energy to directing and Jenny has done two fantastic shows with him – A Raisin In The Sun (written by Lorraine Hansbury in 1959) at Manchester Royal Exchange (for which she won an award), and Moon On A Rainbow Shawl (written by Trinidadian actor and writer Errol John in 1957) at The National Theatre with friends Danny Sapani, Martina Laird, Jade Anouka and Bert Caesar.

Somebody cut something out from the newspaper that day

I first met Rudolph Walker in 1989 in Portsmouth.  We were both working on a four-part TV show called Rules Of Engagement, about a nuclear sub incident and Portsmouth being cut off from the mainland (it is actually an island).  Also present : Kenneth Cranham one of my main musical benefactors and inspirations whom I have written about before, and Karl Johnson, one of the funniest fuckers I have ever worked with, he was also in The Black & Blue Lamp with Ken and I (see My Pop Life #177).   Rudolph was playing a big noise accountant who could get things done.  I was a small-time spiv, and me & my mate Peter Attard represented the flotsam and jetsam of humanity caught up in the geo-political wargames.  The director was Rob Walker, (father of writer Che Walker – Ann Mitchell is Mum) and he is one of the few directors who cast black people without the script mentioning their skin colour.  Thus back in 1989 Cathy Tyson and Ken Cranham were the cops, Rudolph the crooked businessman.

Rudolph I knew of course from my youth, from the telly:  Love Thy Neighbour.  Yes, that Rudolph.  With his screen wife and fellow Trini Nina Baden-Semper they withstood the slings and arrows of white 1970s Britain over 7 series for ITV living next door to racist Eddie Booth (played by Jack Smethhurst) and his non-racist wife Joan (Kate Williams).   At the time I think it was a kind of ITV riposte to Til Death Us Do Part starring Warren Mitchell, the most famous racist character on British TV at that time.  But Love Thy Neighbour actually had black characters and represented their experience, so Rudolph became the first prime-time black actor on British TV and thus the most well-known black actor in Britain for years as a result of this show, which he is clearly very proud of.  Many people thought the series was offensive because the racist Eddie’s favourite phrase was ‘nig-nog’ and he would insist that white people were above black people.  It was totally on the nose and you know how the British like everything to be unspoken and under the carpet if possible.  So while Warren Mitchell and ‘Til Death got all the cultural credit, Love Thy Neighbour became an embarrassment and is no longer repeated in TV schedules.  I hope I’m not overstating things here.  Rudolph is extremely phlegmatic about all this and carries his fame, the controversy and his part in it lightly and with grace and charm.  If you push him though, he’ll defend it to the hilt.  It showed the English who they were, and it showed many of the Caribbean immigrants who they were.  Which was more radical?  Rudi and I used to breakfast together in our little seafront hotel, and one morning he met Jenny who’d only recently become (officially anyway) my main squeeze (see My Pop Life #114).

In fact it was while I was on this job in my old home town where both my parents were born and where I lived from the ages of 2 – 6,  that I proposed to Jenny.  It was a happy accident.   My first school was in Portsmouth and I can still recall the bomb debris site near our house where we played as kids – houses now piles of bricks and rubble and wood still broken down from the Second World War, when Portsmouth, home to the British Navy for centuries, was bombed to smithereens.  My brain thinks bomb-like.  Lord Nelson‘s flagship from The Battle of Trafalgar (1805), the galleon H.M.S. Victory is in dry dock there as a living museum of war and naval superiority.   Jenny and I had spent a fantastic weekend, taking the ferry to the Isle of Wight and walking along the beach, me heroically retrieving her scarf when we left it on a fence and walked on for a mile before realising it was gone, racing back to get it.  On the evening of her departure,  we both dragged our feet so reluctant were we to part.  When Jenny inevitably failed to board the train back to London, we had two hours to wait until the next one.  Portsmouth Station is very close to the naval yard so we walked over to H.M.S. Victory and sat on the giant anchor, chatting.   When I say giant anchor you have to imagine a piece of metal the size of a small bus.

After a while the dusk was falling and Jenny said “What shall we do now?”.    I looked over at the sea and back at her and felt so happy.  “Let’s get married”  I replied.   And so it was to be.  This moment was marked on my skin with a tattoo in 2016.  I always used to say “I’m never getting married” .  I was young, and wrong.  Scarred by the five divorces of my parents.  No respect for the institution of marriage.  But underneath, I just wanted to do it the one time, and this was going to be it.

Rudolph Walker

When I saw Rudi for breakfast the following morning, I told him that Jenny and I were engaged and he blessed us and was pleased.  Three years later he read  from the Song Of Solomon at our wedding in St Joseph’s Church in Highgate “the only book in the Bible that doesn’t mention God” said the priest Father Joseph, for it was he that was marrying us “but it mentions love many many times and God is love“.  Over the following weeks Rudi and I decided to work together and he told me his main film idea about an itinerant Trini preacher in London called D.K. and his mother.   I loved the idea and agreed to write it – by this point I’d written the Joint Stock play Sanctuary, won the Samuel Beckett Award for it and had all kinds of projects on the go.  This particular one I actually wrote as the first episode of a four-part special called Messiah, had DK and his ma taking over a disused church, performing miracles, providing sanctuary to Kurdish refugees (years ahead of my time, me ;-).. and filling the church with religious iconography from every single religion in the world.  DK’s sermons were very non-denominational.    And the miracles were fun.  Political magic realism. Took me the best part of a year I reckon, by which time Jenny had done Prime Suspect 2 with Helen Mirren and got to know the producer Paul Marcus really well, to the extent of singing at his birthday party.  I didn’t know that many TV producers so when Rudi and I were both happy with the script Paul was the first person I took Messiah to.  And then I waited.  At the meeting with Paul he said some weird stuff about the project having a lot of “ego”, and expressed dislike for the idea.  I was seriously disheartened and didn’t really take it to many other people, Malcolm Craddock for sure, maybe a couple of others but…suddenly, nothing happened.  It’s all about contacts this business-called-show and I had very few in those days.   About ten years later a show appeared on ITV called hmmm The 2nd Coming with miracles and all (just like Rudi and I’s film) with Chris Ecclestone as the preacher.   These are the kinds of things that discourage me from writing.

But Rudi and I stayed in touch and we would see each other from time to time, at theatrical first nights at the National Theatre, The Tricycle and other events, often he’d be with Dounne Alexander, now his wife.  He was granted an OBE in 2006 and we went to the reception at the Trinidadian Embassy in London where a group of youngsters enrolled in The Rudolph Walker Foundation marched in to show discipline and leadership potential and honour their founder.  It was pretty impressive.   By then he had joined the cast of Eastenders playing Patrick Trueman where he works to this day, a cornerstone in the cultural landscape, representing the Caribbean in Britain, both in his life and on screen.  It is an honour to consider him my friend.

Aldwyn Roberts – Lord Kitchener

As for Lord Kitchener, well.  Perhaps even Rudi would accept that Kitch was the greatest Trini export.   Too much to unravel here – but born Aldwyn Roberts in Arima, Trinidad in 1922, he became a full-time musician at the age of 14 after his father died.  Gifted both musically and lyrically he toured Jamaica in 1947/8 for 6 months with calypsonians Lord Beginner and Lord Woodbine before embarking on the Empire Windrush and sailing for Great Britain.  He sang ‘London Is De Place For Me‘ with its Big Ben chimes live on camera, as they docked, for Pathé News.  When the West Indies cricket team beat England in 1950, Kitch was on hand with ‘Cricket Lovely Cricket‘ a victory calypso which became the first well-known Caribbean song in the UK.  He ran a nightclub in Manchester and had a regular spot at the Sunset Club in London until 1962 whereupon he returned to Trinidad, which meant competing in the annual calypso competition, which he dominated alongside The Mighty Sparrow, for the next 20 years.

Lord Kitchener with steel pan orchestra

Lord Kitchener won the road march ten times between 1965 and 1976 at which point he retired from competition and started to develop a soca sound, recently popularised by younger calypsonians Lord Shorty and Robin Imamshah.  So-ca was defined as “the soul of calypso” and would redefine Caribbean music completely, although to my ears, Kitch’s records always have some old school flavour.  Perhaps it is the compositions – as mentioned earlier he is lyrically dextrous, reminiscent of the great Chuck Berry, and more often than not extremely funny while the music is always beautifully melodic and highly syncopated.   There is something in there which I cannot describe – is it the dotted notes ?  The off-beat is constant and pulling you onto your feet incessantly.  So infectious.

Still from the documentary Calypso Dreams (2004). 

As a form, calypso has always been very responsive to the news, often being a commentary on conditions and events, often dealing in double-entendres, often lewd and always entertaining.  It’s a poor man’s newspaper, telling him what’s going on behind his back.   My favourite Kitchener songs alongside this particular work of genius are all later songs :  Pan in A Minor which is stunning, The Bees Melody which is wickedly clever, Tribute To Spree Simon which won the Monarch title in 1975, and of course Sugar Bum Bum from 1977 which needs no commentary from me.  Calypso music had a moment of high fashion in the late 50s and reached a huge international audience when Harry Belafonte’s Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) was released on his LP Calypso in 1956 and suddenly the music of the caribbean was everywhere.  Even Robert Mitchum made a calypso album.  Although I note quickly that both Belafonte and the Banana Boat Song emanate from Jamaica (before I get biffed).

It’s a living vibration rooted deep within my Caribbean belly, lyrics to make a politician cringe or turn a woman’s body to jelly… it’s a sweet soca music, you could never refuse it, it make you shake like a shango and why the hell you shakin’ you don’t know : calypso music

This song – the mighty Mystery Band –  is from when we were there – 1993 – and we heard it everywhere we went along with road-march winner Bacchannal Time by Superblue which is a stonking, itching, devilish party tune.  We bought both records in Port of Spain and carried them home with us as souvenirs of an unforgettable trip.  Kitch was 71 when this record was released.

        

1993 Carnival in Trinidad

Mystery Band is a song about an invisible band which only plays when it is raining.

Some say the music sound the the late 40s, some say it sound like a band from space

What is the Mystery Band ?  I won’t spoil it by telling you – enjoy the song, one of my all-time favourite pieces of music.   Wonderful lyrics by calypsonian David Rudder, music by Aldwyn Roberts.   It has two distinct parts, in the key of F and the key of E, one semitone below, accentuated each time in a magnificent musical gear shift down half a pitch which makes me swoon with joy.   What a hook.

Lord Kitchener died in 2000 and is buried in Santa Rosa cemetery in Arima.

The Amoco Renegades steelband made this superb rendition of Mystery Band in 1993 and won Panorama. Arrangement by the genius Dr Jit Samaroo.

My Pop Life #180 : Boya Ye – M’bilia Bel

Boya Ye   –   M’bilia Bel

liputa nyonso epasuki eeh

I bought this beauty as a 12″ single in 1986 at Stern’s African Music Shop in Whitfield St W1, just north of Fitzroy Square, and just below Samuel French’s Theatre Bookshop on the corner of Warren St.  Opposite Stern’s was the Diwan-E-Khas restaurant which served the finest North Indian food in London back in the 80s, alongside their sister restaurant the Diwan-E-Am in Drummond Street, behind Euston about half a mile away.  (see My Pop Life #136 )
The counter at Sterns Records in the mid-80s
You can just about see a record by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan on that picture in the corner (top left).  They also stocked zouk and calypso from the Caribbean and other bits and pieces.  The shop had opened in 1983 with a little ceremony on the pavement involving drums and blessings.  The vibe in the shop was outstanding, and so was the selection of music.  The first time -or apparently the 2nd (Fela Kuti !) –  I went in there was to find the Franco & TPOK Jazz LP ’20eme Anniversaire’ which I’d heard whilst buying weed in Islington one night and had my little musical ears blown off  (See My Pop Life #38 )  Since that auspicious purchase I had returned for further Congolese magic : Pablo Lubadika Porthos, Tout Choc, Zaiko Langa Langa, more Franco, always more Franco, Papa Wemba, a wonderful Gabonese singer called Regine Feline and this wonderful single from M’bilia Bel fronting Franco’s rival camp of Tabu Ley.  The now-familiar cascade of overlapping guitar cadences and rumba polyrhythms led by a simply joyous lead vocalist who had been discovered singing with Sam Mangwana by bandleader Tabu Ley Rochereau, who along with Franco was one of the giants of Congolese music.
Tabu Ley Rochereau
He’d written a song for her Eswi Yo Wapi, recorded it with his mighty band Orchestre Afrisa International, it became a smash hit, they’d got married and her next dozen singles dominated the musical and dance landscape not just of the Congo, but the whole of Africa for the next 10+ years, and loosened Franco’s grip on the musical landscape.  She was hugely popular.
This album – released on the Sterns label – documents these years superbly : they are all classic african pop/dance tunes that the rest of Africa calls “DRC Music” – dance music from the Democratic Republic of Congo.   Which is almost funny because Congo hasn’t been democratic since Patrice Lumumba the first president after independence was arrested, tortured and killed by a combination of familiar forces (MI6, CIA, Belgian troops) in 1961.    Without going into detail, the history of Congo since then has been one of corruption and arms-length control by foreign companies who have stripped the nation of its huge mineral wealth – particularly the southern state of Katanga which produces cobalt, tin, copper, uranium and diamonds, and where Lumumba was executed after 84 days in office.   Torn apart by war and conflict, other states have become involved especially in the eastern provinces alongside Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi, with different forces representing somewhat shadowy interests fighting the Congolese Army and each other, including smaller private groups such as The Lord’s Resistance Army from Uganda all crossing the border with impunity, terrorising the locals and raping the women as a weapon and tactic of war.
The prize is coltan, from which is extracted tantalum, used in most electronic components and devices including mobile phones.  During the war with Rwanda in the 1990s, Rwanda became a leading exporter of coltan, stolen from mines in Eastern Congo.  Competing militias funded their operations with this prized mineral, and who knows who took what percentage to turn a blind eye to the rape both of the land and the people.
Lynn Nottage, Pulitzer-Prize-winning writer of Ruined in 2010
In 2009 Jenny was offered the lead in a play set in this part of the world : Lynn Nottage‘s Ruined, at the Almeida Theatre.  The play is set in a brothel in the war-zone near Goma, in the Eastern Congo.  This establishment is run by Mama Nadi, a fierce madam who takes in “ruined” local women to service the various militias who come through the territory. It is an extraordinary play which won the Pulitzer Prize for Lynn just before rehearsal started.
Indhu Rubasingham in rehearsal for Ruined at The Almeida
The director was Indhu Rubasingham who had already directed Jenny in Lynn’s earlier work Fabulation at The Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn in 2005/6.  So the team were reunited and set to work on this dynamic story, by turns dramatic, raw, amusing, tragic and inspiring.  It bears witness to some of the worst crimes in modern history and a series of stories buried, where women’s bodies mirror the nation they stand in, ravaged, fought over, ruined.   Mama Nadi was an extraordinary part for Jenny and she ate it up with great relish, much pain, and real commitment.  At some point before they started I remembered M’bilia Bel the great Kinshasa diva and dug out the 12″ single to play for Jenny.
By now we we on The Internet and there was footage of the singer we could watch – brilliant footage of her dressed to kill, dancing to seduce and singing to raise a revolution.   Jenny didn’t base her performance on the singer by any means but it was a window into a Congolese world of women and a certain tough independent proud defiance came through very strongly.    I made a CD of Congolese music for Indhu too – Franco & Tabu Ley of course, Zaiko Langa Langa, Papa Wemba and Werrason bringing us up to date, a wonderful sweep of sounds from Kinshasa.
The night before first preview in Islington the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull which had been simmering since late 2009 suddenly erupted with a vengeance and left a gigantic ash cloud sitting over the Atlantic Ocean & Europe, grounding thousands of planes and preventing Lynn’s husband Tony from flying in for the show.  The cloud hung for about a week and prevented Lynn from going home to New York a few days later.  It was all rather dramatic.
Jenny didn’t tell me anything about the play because she wanted me to experience it live on the night when I saw it for the first time.  This is usually the case when I see her productions.  I end up seeing them multiple times – between 5 & 10 normally, so the effect only works once.   It’s worth it though.  The 15th April 2010 was the first preview and when I entered the auditorium was thrilled to find it converted into an equatorial rainforest with a wooden-slatted speakeasy on a revolve nestled at it’s heart, presided over by an immensely powerful performance by Jenny as Mama Nadi, nurturing her girls, workers, prostitutes who’d been abused and raped and could no longer find a man to accept them;  serving soldiers who would sweep in and dominate the space, but need drink and music and dance in this unstable & constantly shifting war-zone.
Mama Nadi
An outstanding piece of writing, inspired somewhat by Mother Courage, but shining light on a hidden part of the world which we use- at arm’s length – without thought.  Brilliant and moving performances from Michelle Asante, Pippa Bennett-Warner and Kehinde Fadipe as the ruined girls living a nightmare as survivors gave voice to Lynn Nottage’s rarely-heard-from female characters, while Steve Toussaint, Lucien Msamati, David Ajala and Silas Carson portrayed the soldiers, the travelling merchant and the gem-smuggler.  The music  was played by Joseph Roberts and Akintaye Akinbode and written by Dominic Kanza and it provided a stripped-down yet infectious rumba soundtrack for the girls to dance to, either with a soldier who has been forced to leave his gun at the door, or with each other.
The title was explained early on : when a girl is raped with a bayonet, she is no longer capable of giving birth, and thus is “ruined”.
By the end of the show and Jenny’s last moments with Lucien I was in bits and had to leave the theatre and weep quietly on my own for fifteen minutes before re-entering the bar and the space and find familiar friends to congratulate and hug.  I was actually devastated.
It was a huge, magnificent performance and it changed both of our lives.  Some months later, Jenny won the Critic’s Circle Award as best actress, voted on by the nations theatre critics  – a massive acknowledgement of her achievement.  David Suchet won best actor and they were pictured together – we’d all worked together on NCS Manhunt in 2001.   A year later Jenny was cast to play Mama Nadi again, this time at Arena Stage in Washington D.C. in a production directed by Charles Randolph-Wright.  We later learned that Lynn had suggested Jenny for the lead.    Again it was a stunning production.
Now we live in Brooklyn where I eventually met Lynn’s husband Tony Gerber – a director – at dinner one night and we have become fast friends here.   Tony has been back to the Congo recently to make another documentary about the militias and although things have calmed down considerably it is still an unstable area.    And Lynn went back too.  After researching the play there she returned to see a five-hour production of Ruined in Kinshasa in 2011 which tested her artistic generosity since they had added great chunks of dialogue along with the inevitable 10-minute musical interludes.
I’ve still never been there, and it is a huge longing of mine, mainly for the music, but also for the great River Congo.   Franco died long ago, Tabu Ley in 2013 but M’bilia Bel is still going, although is based, like many successful African musicians, in Paris.  The younger generation are now sampling the golden age of soukous for hip hop tracks, rapping in the local language Lingala.  Despite a few attempts online I still cannot understand it so I can’t tell you what Boya Ye is about I’m afraid.
A few short weeks after Ruined closed (in triumph!) in London, Jenny and I flew down to South Africa for the first World Cup to take place on that continent.   One of my early memories of Cape Town was sitting in a taxi listening to some music pumping out of the speakers and asking the driver who was playing.  “DRC Music” he’d said.  On my birthday in Greenpoint Stadium England were once again a huge disappointment of course drawing 0-0 with Algeria.  We went on to Fatboy Slim’s party in town and celebrated just being there with Billy The Bee and others, but the World Cup isn’t about England.   It was moving and instructive to see how as the African teams got knocked out one by one – the host nation first ! until only Ghana were left, the fans coalesced around the Ghanaians, the whole continent willing them on to the infamous quarter final game in Soweto.   A sense of unity, unforced, non-tribal, celebratory.   The reason why we’d come.

My Pop Life #179 : One Drop – Bob Marley & The Wailers

One Drop   –   Bob Marley & The Wailers

“What’s your favourite Bob Marley song?”  asked Chris.

It is a legitimate question I think.  It was the early afternoon of a North London autumn day in 1997.   Paulette & Beverley Randall had accompanied Jenny and myself to visit a new baby in NW6 : Jemima, first daughter of :  Chris Skala and Emma who had met at Paulette’s legendary Club 61 event which convened regularly for vodka, music and slow dancing (see My Pop Life #60) and they had danced together, chatted, kissed, wooed and then <swoon> married in Lauderdale House, Waterlow Park in the summer of 1993.   Chris – who it should be noted is an American (guvner) – had invited me to his stag night earlier in ’93.  Where it was and what we did I simply cannot recall due to the excessive intake of alcoholic beverages and marijuana.

Beverley, Paulette & Jenny 1997

But here we were in his flat where the new baby was being oohed and aahed over but where Chris was diligently aware of his DJ-ing duties.

“C’mon Ralphie.  Favourite Bob Marley song?”

I flicked mentally through my Bob Marley albums.  I think there were three :  Exodus, Live ! (at the Lyceum in 1975: which all white people owned – it was a law) and Legend – aka The Greatest Hits, which Jenny had brought with her when she moved into Archway Road five years earlier.  We may have had another one – Kaya perhaps or Catch A Fire, but there were less than five.  In other words, not really enough to make an informed choice.  It struck me as a moment of weakness – which isn’t really fair, but that’s how it struck me anyway – like someone asking what my favourite Beatles song is and only having twenty songs in my head, all from the Red or Blue albums.   I think I said “Jamming” at the time, which was the truth – probably the best Bob Marley song.  The best meaning, as always, my favourite, at the time, because THE BEST doesn’t actually exist, it can only ever mean MY FAVOURITE.  But when you are young you always say THE BEST.  Because it goes without saying that your favourite is the best.

To be fair, I wasn’t a huge Bob Marley fan at that point in my life, but because I was with Paulette & Bev, whose parents were Jamaican, and who clearly represented, in my mind at least, and possibly my ears, the Jamaican Music Police I couldn’t possibly say that.  I just couldn’t because I sensed that my not being a huge Bob Marley fan was based on ignorance rather than on massive exposure and discerning judgement.  It is a feature of my intellectual and possibly over-educated friends (AND I INCLUDE MYSELF IN THIS GENERALISATION) that we will make strange musical and cultural judgements which are not based on knowledge but on some other odd refraction of the universe which manifests itself as a kind of pyramid of taste which we then climb.  Indeed, many of these cultural discernments are passed around the cognoscenti, whether educated or not, as a kind of badge of knowledge.  If you state, for example, that you prefer Motown to Stax, you will lose points.  If you prefer pop music to New Orleans R’n’B you will lose points.  If you prefer The Blue Danube by Johann Strauss (My Pop Life #157) to Mahler’s 8th Symphony you will lose points.   Lou Reed beats Gilbert O’Sullivan.  Charlie Parker beats Stan Getz.  And Burning Spear beats Bob Marley.

I think it is an invisible race to an invisible point.  A refined narrowing of the portal of acceptance where popularity somehow disqualifies the artist from the ultimate pinnacle of art.  For only the cognoscenti can see, or hear, the genius that is true art.  Not all the masses who buy the song because it’s catchy – what do they know for fuck’s sake?  No, the best kind of music is always a little bit secret, a little bit of an acquired taste, only for the in-crowd, the connoisseur, the adept.   And really only for the young.  As I have aged I have ditched this poverty disguised as philosophy and gone back to Strauss, Stan Getz and Marley, loved Motown all over again, and been proud to acknowledge that yes, I am and have always been, a pop tart.  No such thing as Guilty Pleasures. Just pleasures.

Battersea Park, 1977

I have also realised that it is all right to say “I don’t know” when asked a question of any kind.  When I was 30-something it was simply illegal to say I don’t know at any point, because of course all young people know everything, and to acknowledge that one of you perhaps has a gap somewhere or simply hasn’t acquired that piece of knowledge yet is tantamount to social suicide, from which there is no recovery, or at least, let’s face it, an extremely long road uphill.  It’s too humiliating.  And maybe this is only true of men, those of us who use a specialised area of knowledge as our castle, our control-space where most people will defer to us because they haven’t put the hours in and built the encyclopedic walls.  And to have a Bob Marley-sized hole in the battlements is a weakness, as I originally experienced it.  Of course you can always say “I don’t care” but a) that is a lie, and b) that is even weaker in most cases.  Unless you have no desire to specialise, no desire to have any power or control over anything, in which case you are not being entirely honest with us are you?

Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer early 1970s

My usual journey into an artist is via a song – probably the big hit, then the greatest hits, then dive in deep if you really like them.  If they don’t really have hits (like Spirit or Burning Spear or Little Feat) then your first listen may be in someone’s bedroom passing a joint around, maybe at a Festival somewhere passing a joint around, or maybe you were just curious and you bought an LP in a crate somewhere like a car boot sale or a vinyl junkie shop.  But if the artist is popular – pop tarts beware – then all kinds of other criteria pollute your experience.  Build ’em up, knock ’em down for example (Boy George, Amy Winehouse etc).  People whose identity you don’t share, or don’t feel that you do, suddenly declaring a love for your favourite artist because they saw them on TV (but they’re mine!).  Familiarity breeds contempt.  Your favourite artist becomes so famous that they are interviewed and they say something stupid or controversial.  You defend them.  Or you quietly go off them.  Or you read some piece of chattering-class space-fillage about the phenomenon of David Bowie‘s white soul period or The Ramones being middle-class or – yes – Bob Marley having Catch A Fire produced for the white market and his sound being tailored to break through – which it then did – and you kind of think – well, I prefer the rootsy rasta sounds of Burning Spear and Prince Far-I, Culture and Lee Perry, to the cleaned-up Americanised version of reggae that Chris Blackwell and Island Records sold to us with Catch A Fire in 1973.

But that isn’t fair, is it ?  It’s blown out of all proportion.  Musical snobbery indeed. Because Robert Nesta Marley had been singing and writing and playing music since 1963 with Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh, playing mento and bluebeat and ska, making records with Lee Perry and Leslie Kong, touring with Johnny Nash and others before evolving the sound in the late 60s – actually around 1970 – with Carlton Barrett on the drums and his brother Aston ‘Family Man’ Barrett on the bass forming the bedrock of the roots reggae sound that would go around the world and back and eventually signing with Island Records.  This consequently precipitated a change of line-up since Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh didn’t want to tour ‘freak clubs’ due to their rastafari faith, and didn’t like Blackwell (Chris Whiteworst was his nickname).  They presumably didn’t like that Wayne Perkins, a Muscle Shoals session guitarist, was overdubbed onto Concrete Jungle by Blackwell, to sweeten the flavour for white listeners.   They certainly didn’t like that the band was now known as Bob Marley & The Wailers, rather than The Wailers.  And this backstory, given the success of the LP, was the sub-plot to the take-off of the world’s first genuine 3rd World Superstar.  (Yes, I know, Developing World <sigh>).  In other words, once an act becomes successful, editors demand more copy, the story has been told, now come on give us another fold in the narrative, find another level of knowledge that people will consume, let’s have more fodder, more writing, more product.  And once something becomes hugely successful, the story becomes warped with their success, and the fans simple love of the music is tainted by all this extra information.  Certainly the original cognoscenti move along to the next secret discovery, always having to be there first, and not wanting to be a small part of a large crowd.  This way we miss out on much pleasure.

Aston Barrett, Peter Tosh, Carlton Barrett, Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer 1970

And so there I was, catching up with Bob Marley over the next 20 years with the help and assistance and encouragement of my beautiful wife Jenny Jules, who has always been a Bob Marley fan.  There have been films to help me out – documentaries such as Marley (2012) which was to have been directed by Scorsese, then Demme, eventually MacDonald.  And then the novel by Marlon James A Brief History of Seven Killings which I bought but haven’t read yet is a fictional account of Bob Marley’s life which won the Booker prize in 2016.  Meanwhile back to the LPs and the songs – it’s all about the songs, and Pimper’s Paradise stood out (from Uprising 1980),

every need got an eagle to feed

as did Satisfy My Soul (from Kaya 1978) – the brass is amazing –

every little action, there’s a reaction

and Waiting In Vain (Exodus 1977).

ooh girl ooh girl is it feasible -for I to knock some more?

and Is This Love (also from Kaya – my favourite Marley album)

we’ll share the same room…Jah provide the bread…

But wait – Marley was not the world’s first 3rd-World Superstar.  He wasn’t even the first Jamaican superstar to break America.  No, that honour belongs to the great Harry Belafonte with Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) and Island In The Sun one year later in 1957 (the year of my birth).  Belafonte went on to become a movie star and musical giant of the 20th century, creating a huge anthology of black folk music, inviting musical refugees from apartheid South Africa Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masakela to the United States to make records and tour, and continued to be an advocate for civil rights while making records and movies.  A giant of a man and a great musician and singer.

For Marley, Catch A Fire was a door opening.  Although Neville Livingstone, aka Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh both stayed in the band for one final album Burnin’ the writing was on the wall.   The album contained two giant hits Get Up Stand Up and I Shot The Sheriff, while the next LP Natty Dread in 1974 included both Lively Up Yourself and No Woman, No Cry, which was Marley’s first real international hit single.   The other profound manifestation on Natty Dread was the new band line-up, with the Barretts plus four new musicians, and the introduction of the I-Threes on backing vocals – Marcia Griffiths, Judy Mowatt, and Bob’s wife Rita Marley.  

Natty Dread is a fantastic LP, with a different sound to Catch A Fire and Burnin’.   Next came the Live ! album from the Lyceum Ballroom in London, capturing the excitement of the band’s show, followed by Rastaman Vibration with its rock guitars and synthesizers which became the first album to enter the US charts.  In contrast the Bunny Wailer LP Blackheart Man and the Peter Tosh album Legalize It, both from the same year of 1976 and offered a far more rootsy sound and rasta philosophy.

But Marley was taking the rasta sound and philosophy out to the world.  The arrangements on his albums from this point on – Exodus, Kaya, Survival and Uprising – while indebted to reggae and the Jamaican rhythms are astoundingly original in what is left out of each phrase, what is played and what is not.   My own favourite track is One Drop which celebrates the reggae rhythm (no drumbeat on the one beat) while chanting down Babylon in a rastafarian prayer.  There is no other reggae music that sounds like Marley.  He was now in 1976 bigger and more influential than any Jamaican politician, so after a thankfully botched assassination attempt when Marley and Rita were shot and wounded in an incident at his house, he decamped to England in 1977 for two years.

Bob Marley & The Wailers in London 1977

Bob lived in Chelsea mainly, played football, fathered more children and made his astoundingly successful albums Exodus & Kaya.  He returned to Jamaica in late 1978 for the final two albums Survival and Uprising.

Bob Marley died in 1980 of cancer in Miami as he flew back to Jamaica from a clinic in Germany.  His legacy was an astonishing run of albums. His final words, to his son Ziggy, were  “Money can’t buy life”.

I have educated myself since that day in 1997 and listened to all of the Marley records going back to the 1960s and forward to Confrontation, the final posthumous LP released in 1983.  He rewards constant re-visiting and I hear new stuff every time.

For the record, Paulette’s favourite song was One Drop as far as I recall, which has now become My Favourite Bob Marley Song.  Bev hovered between Get Up Stand Up and War, but now claims Concrete Jungle as her favourite  Jenny’s favourite is Waiting In Vain.  Chris – in my dim memory – chose Lively Up Yourself, and Emma One Love.

And then we all lived happily ever after

Happy postscript :  Just after posting this on Feb 6th 2017 I was in correspondence again with Emma, now living in Willesden with Christopher and all-grown-up Jemima now at University (and writing a music blog!)   Feb 6th was her second daughter Lottie’s 17th birthday, and also the birthday of Bob Marley.  Coincidence ??   I think not…

My Pop Life #178 : It’s Up To You – The Specials

It’s Up To You   –   The Specials

What you gonna do, when morons come for you?
They won’t go away, they want the whole world painted grey…

The classic version of this song was recorded at The Moonlight Club in West Hampstead on May 2nd 1979, the eve of the United Kingdom General Election which was won by Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative Party.   It opens with lead singer Terry Hall saying :

“I haven’t got much to say. It’s the eve of the election.  It’s up to you”  

That gig appeared on a bootleg which did the rounds. The Specials first album proper, produced by Elvis Costello on Two-Tone Records was released in October of that year a few months later.   I remember it all so vividly.   Life in England had felt like a fight for some time.  In the spring of 1978 a march from Trafalgar Square to Victoria Park in Hackney was organised by Rock Against Racism, culminating in a concert where The Clash, Jimmy Pursey from Sham 69, reggae band Steel Pulse, Tom Robinson and X-Ray Spex among others played to a huge crowd of punks, skinheads, rastas and rude boys.  It was in response to a rising tide of racist attacks and a poisonous atmosphere of hate which had been building for some time in the 70s.  It was about taking sides.  Black/White, Unite/Fight.  

The Specials embodied that attitude – a gang of kids from Coventry led by songwriter Jerry Dammers, singer Terry Hall and toaster Neville Staple, guitarist Lynval Golding and bass player Horace Panter, graced by legendary Jamaican trombonist Rico Rodriguez on their first single A Message To You Rudy, a cover of the Dandy Livingstone ska classic.  Indeed their sound was a punky update on classic Jamaican ska and two-tone rude boy music from the 1960s and that first album had a number of covers of Prince Buster, Toots & The Maytals, Lloyd Charmers and The Skatalites.  The energy and politics were as one, and their live performances were a joyous combination of dancing and fury like most gigs in the late 70s, fuelled by lager and little blue pills.  There was usually a frisson of violence too because skinheads would turn up and bounce around at the front looking for a fight.  If it got too out of hand the band would stop playing and start lecturing them.  With humour of course.

Margaret Thatcher and her mates, 1979

It was the start of four consecutive Conservative election victories and a massive swing to the right in Britain.  Thatcher took on the unions, the Irish republicans, the Argentinians, the gas board, train services, water and electricity and appealed to naked nationalism and people’s innate selfishness.  “There is no such thing as society” was her mantra, Reaganomics was her doctrine.  Trickle-down.  An arrogant, cruel sneering at the poor marked out the so-called national mood as people slept in doorways, lost their rights, signed on for work at lower pay.  Compassion was deemed sentimental.  Sentiment was deemed weakness.  And strength was a lack of care as people fell by the wayside and through the safety nets built up by decades of the welfare state.

The Specials live in 1979

It always felt normal to me to be in opposition.  It still does.  Once again we are faced with a period of bare-faced nastiness, appealing to people’s basest primal fears, blind nationalism, pitting people against each other while the rich cream off the cream, hoping that we’re all looking the other way.  History repeats the old conceits, the glib replies, the same defeats.

The Moonlight Club, 100 West End Lane NW6

I moved into 134 West End Lane, yards from The Moonlight Club in the summer of 1979 as I graduated from the London School of Economics with a 2:2 in Law, scarcely deserved, but a qualification to match my three splendid years in WC2 as a student punk.  I had no intention of ever using the degree or continuing in the Law.  I knew that I was going to be an actor – just not quite yet.   I moved in with other graduates Pete and Sali and their friend Nick Partridge who’d just completed a degree at Keele University.  Thus started a wonderful period of rolling joints, listening to reggae and post-punk picture-sleeve singles, dropping blues or amphetamine sulphate and painting and decorating to save money for a trip to Latin America with my brother Paul.  We started learning Spanish at an evening class in Swiss Cottage.  And we played frisbee and watched Brighton & Hove Albion finally playing in Division One, went to gigs at The Hammersmith Palais, the Music Machine in Camden (later called Camden Palace) the Rainbow in Finsbury Park and yes, The Moonlight Club down the street.   I touched upon this fondly-recalled era in My Pop Life #92.

A band called Spizz Energi released a fabulously mental single called “Where’s Captain Kirk” and played the Moonlight one night, then changed their name the following month to Athletico Spizz 80.  Pete would come home clutching singles by bands such as Wavis O’Shave, Shoes For Industry or Wah! Heat while I would enthuse about The Flying Lizards, The Undertones or the Gang Of Four and Nick would offer Ry Cooder’s Bop Til You Drop while Sali championed The Pretenders.

It’s hard to describe just how out-of-fashion ska music was until The Specials revived it.  They spearheaded a movement which included Madness, The Selector and The Beat but it is a little like some kids today suddenly playing dancehall and it almost overnight becoming the most popular music on the radio.  Such an inspiring moment.

Years later – in 2009 – I shot the lowest-budget film of my entire career, based on Barrie Keeffe‘s searingly brilliant play ‘Sus‘ which is set on the eve of the 1979 election and based on a true story he heard in the pub one night in South London.  A black man is arrested after his wife is found dead and grilled by two policemen who are convinced that he has murdered her.  As the election results trickle in the boys in blue look forward to a new dawn where they will be able to flex their muscles with much more sympathy from the powers that be.  Just two years later in 1981, Brixton, Toxteth and other inner-city areas of the UK would erupt in flames as a furious reaction to this newly-confident police aggression.

Writer Barrie Keeffe (The Long Good Friday, Sus, Barbarians, Abide With Me)

Actor and buddy Clint Dyer – whom I’d met on the TV version of Lock, Stock in 1999 -had been doing the play Sus on stage and tried to talk me into playing the character of Karn the previous year at the Young Vic.  I was honoured, but had to explain to Clint that I wasn’t keen on being onstage in anything.  I just didn’t enjoy stage acting that much.  Months later Clint had raised the money for a film version of the play with Barrie’s blessing, executive produced by Claire Castera and he’d recruited Rafe Spall as the other police officer when he came back to me with the offer to play Karn onscreen.   What a part.  A solid Thatcherite racist policeman, beautifully written by Keeffe, a man who spends the night grilling Leroy the innocent suspect with increasing violence and disdain.  We had two weeks and a fifty thousand pound budget to make this happen, absurdly low.  But where there is a will : a skeleton crew led by line producer Oliver Ledwith, and helmed by the wonderful Jono Smith as director of Photography and first AD’d by Tom White.  Costumes by Linda Haysman, Make-up by Alison Hanken, 3rd AD was Keiron Mahon.  All legends.  Clint’s friend Rob Heath directed us on a set built at Elstree by Mark Sutherland, a single cell in a police station off the Old Kent Road.  And Rob it was who chose this song – It’s Up To You (live at the Moonlight) to accompany the film’s opening credits, which I’ve linked to below, helped by archive footage courtesy of Don Letts.  It is the most perfect distillation of music, time and place that I can think of.  And the end result is a film that I am hugely proud of.  Clint is quite devastating in the lead role. Rafe Spall is a marvellous twerp-like bully.  It looks great.  And I can actually watch myself – very rare indeed.  Which makes it my favourite piece of work out of everything that I have done over the years.  Funny how this particular character, so diametrically opposed to me , should fit me like a glove.  There’s mystery !

And so now here we are, in early 2017, facing another period of opposition, another moment of decision, another call for solidarity.  To be honest I’ve never felt that any government has represented me, or my politics.  They’ve all been corrupt, all sold us down the river (still some quiver when I deliver).  I am permanently in opposition, it kind of defines who I am.  I am against stuff.  Maybe I’ll mellow out as I get older.  Doesn’t seem very likely somehow.  But you never know.  It’s up to me.

Eve of the election :

SUS – the opening credits

SUS – The Trailer

My Pop Life #174 : Learning To Be – Eleven

Learning To Be   –   Eleven

***

Slipping away I get closer each day I been looking for love to find me

Digging away I will search I will pray I been waiting for truth to blind me

Only perceive and the world will conceive there’s a seat in my heart that binds me  

awake in a dream I believe it’s extreme, ruling out that all this is magic…

“If you can meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two imposters both the same…”  said Rudyard Kipling in his incomparable poem “If…”.   Well I can’t.  I pretend I can, but no, I prefer the triumphs.  Is that what they’re called ?  Those goals into the top corner.  Those victories.  Yes, I prefer those imposters to the failures.  But people always say wise self-help guru stuff like “you learn more from your failures”  or “crisis and opportunity is the same word in Chinese”  or even “I get knocked down but I get up again”.  You know?   I prefer not to get knocked down at all.   I feel like my life was built on crises.  But still they come.

David Fincher

In 1994 I was living in Los Angeles.  It was David Fincher‘s idea.  He’d directed Alien 3 in 1991 and suggested that Jenny and I move to California.  “Come to LaLa” is actually what he said.  In 1992, after we’d got married and shot Undercover Blues in New Orleans which coincided with our honeymoon, (see My Pop Life #158) we rented an apartment in West Hollywood and stayed for three years.  David was very disappointed with Alien3 because the studio hadn’t accepted his cut, indeed had hacked the shit out of his cut, and after the glamorous premiere in LA and razzamatazz opening weekend fizz had died down, it was a film which didn’t knock everyone out, neither the public it seemed nor the critics.  David took it very badly – personally and professionally.  He spent the following two years silently fuming and plotting his revenge, and his next move.  We spent a lot of time together, round his apartment which at the time was on Beverley & La Brea with his new wife Donya Fiorentino, and Rachel his PA, her boyfriend Paul Carafotes, and David’s friends Chip & Carol, Ron, James, Marcie, and other friends.  We had a handful of friends already there – Anita Lewton from Moving Parts days (early 80s) was in Venice Beach, Suzy Crowley and Tony Armatrading were hanging out too.

Donya Fiorentino

We ate out a lot – on Sunset Strip, on La Brea, at Pane e Vino on Beverley.  We went to the movies together.  We got drunk.  We visited Lake Arrowhead one weekend and played pool and ate mushrooms.   We drove to Malibu.  Venice.  Went to gigs, clubs, parties.  We hung out in other words.

I got a gig on the film Wayne’s World 2 playing a roadie named Del Preston, and it was rushed out only a few months after it was finished (unusually).  David and Donya were round at our place on King’s Road when the LA Times review came out – it was great for me, and David said something along the lines of “I hope you remember me when you collect your Oscar“.  He wasn’t joking, he was feeling the pain of not working for two years.  Oh the irony !   Then one day some months later we were round his apartment off Beverley and he gave me a script, saying “there’s a great part in this for you Ralphie“.   It was a film called Seven.

Awake In A Dream by Eleven

There was an album that we listened to a lot that year called Awake In A Dream, by a group called Eleven, who were from LA.    A three-piece band writing intelligent glossy pop/rock with great melodies and unusual chord changes.  Their genesis was entwined with another LA band, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, and then later after Eleven split, Natasha Shneider played bass with Queens Of The Stone Age in their early days before sadly dying of cancer in 2008.  The other two band members were Alain Johannes (who also joined QOTSA in 2005) and Jack Irons.   Their first LP from which this song comes was released in 1991.   Two songs stood out – Learning To Be and Rainbow’s End… 

…Here at the rainbow’s end, there is no pot of gold, no matter what you’re told…

which was clearly a song about LA itself.   It was a sign.  An omen.

Me, Anita Lewton, Jen, Gary Kemp, Donya, David, Annie & Paul McGann

I’d always had a dream of Hollywood, and I’d never chased it, for fear I would fall flat on my face.  I’d been turned away from LA in 1989 on a trip across the USA in Auto Driveaway cars (see My Pop Life #147) getting as far as Phoenix on Christmas Eve before turning back to El Paso.  I’d always wanted Hollywood to ask me in, even in a small way, and in 1991 they did.   I had to shoot some extra Alien3 scenes and Fox paid for Pete Postlethwaite and I to travel to Culver City in LA (for another story).  I’d got an agent, got a job, got an apartment, and now a few years later I’d got the massive opportunity that eventually comes around.

 1994 was a watershed year for me, looking back.  After that incredible review in the LA Times I did not work for a whole year.  “Kim Basinger is fantastic and Christopher Walken marvellous, but walking away with the whole picture is Ralph Brown as Del Preston” is what it said.  It was the kiss of death of course.   I was going up for three films per week.  Everything that was made in 1994, I auditioned for.  Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead.  The Usual Suspects.  Crimson Tide.  Devil In A Blue Dress.  Heat.  Jumanji.   True Romance.  The Quick & The Dead.  And many many others lost to the mists of time.  Learning lines, forming character, turning up with well-chosen clothing and delivering the scene, over and over and over.  Fincher helping me with auditions sometimes (True Romance – offered to Christopher Walken).   Meeting after meeting.  No.  No.  No.  No.  No.  No.  No.  No.  No.  And No.   I’d hit the glass ceiling.  Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken were getting the gigs.  My gigs.  How could I break through that invisible barrier ?

In June the World Cup gave us some welcome respite.  We got tickets for all the Rose Bowl games in Pasadena, just by sending off for them – an advert in the LA Times, and a country that wasn’t interested, bar the foreigners, the Latinos, Africans and Europeans.  We decided to support Cameroon in an early game v Sweden and met Ashley Joyce (English) and Jeremy Thomas (Welsh, just separated from Drew Barrymore after two months of marriage) who ran The Room a groovy bar just off Hollywood Boulevard.  They are still friends of mine.

The Rose Bowl, Pasadena, 1994 World Cup Final 

The month that followed was glorious – wall to wall football, no England to disappoint us (we didn’t qualify) – over 100 degree heat for a Colombia v USA game, a July 4th game USA v Brazil in San José, a quarter final in Pasadena Romania v Sweden, a semi-final Brazil v Sweden and tickets to the actual final Brazil v Italy, a 0-0 draw, and Roberto Baggio blasting his penalty over the bar, cue Brazilian Carnivale, and meeting my old friend Stephen Woolley from Scala Cinema days and The Crying Game outside the stadium after the Final – in town doing screenings for test audiences of Interview With A Vampire.  “That’s no way to make a film” I said.  “Asking the audience which characters they prefer”  “When you’re spending 40 million dollars, it’s the only way to make a film”  he replied.  I was so green, really, so innocent.  But I was certainly living life.   Learning To Be.

Roberto Baggio has just missed a penalty at the World Cup Final

The best game was Romania 3 Argentina 2 after Maradona had been sent home for drug abuse and Hagi’s sweet left foot sent the East Europeans through to the quarter finals.   I think Germany were beaten by Bulgaria, who in turn lost to Italy.  Klinsmann was playing, Roger Milla, Alexi Lalas, Stoichkov, Romario.  We particularly enjoyed watching games on TV with absurd, nay, surreal commentary from US commentators deciphering a game they scarcely understood:  “The ball has crossed the end line” or “great touch by the goal-handler“.  Or the Latin American channels with the hyperbole of the gods :

GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAALLLLL!!!!

We had a laugh.    Then as summer turned to late summer and even later summer (you don’t really get winter in Los Angeles) – our thoughts turned to work and I carried on getting NO from meetings.  They’ve gone another way.  They loved you but it’s not going to work out this time.  Or even worse : silence.  The dwindling hope that finally extinguishes.  And then David gave me the script for Seven.   I read it – and as I’m sure you know dear reader, it was dark and clever.  My character was called John Doe.   David assured me that he wanted me to play it.   It was my gig.  This was great news.   I hadn’t worked for almost a year and was a) going slightly mental, and b) running out of money.   David then called one afternoon and said the producer would like to meet me on Thursday.  Would I mind reading?  “Course not”  I said, “no problem”.   I prepared the scenes in my own accent and also in an American accent.  I’d had an accent coach since one of the films I’d gone up for (The Ice Cream Story) had insisted on me reading again and again ( I went in 3 times and still didn’t get it).  My accent coach told me that my accent was perfect – nailed on.  But the director was nervous, and was projecting his nerves onto me.   I rationalised bitterly.

Wilshire and Fairfax in LA

So Thursday rolls around and I sit in that old space-age diner Johnie’s just above Wilshire Boulevard on Fairfax while I wait for the meeting across the road.   Then I cross Wilshire and go in.  David greets me all smiles like an old friend – he is an old friend.  Introduces me to the producer who in my memory was Arnie Kopelson.  The casting director was there too I think, Billy Hopkins who since Alien3 which he’d cast with Priscilla John had got me in for loads of things, including Speed which is for another post.  Maybe he wasn’t.  But there were a few people there watching me, and I immediately felt uncomfortable.  Like I was on the spot.  I suddenly realised that I had to make David look good.  We did some small talk then someone suggested we read.  There was probably someone there to read the off-lines.  I was shit.  My accent was terrible.  I apologised.  David smiled “It’s cool dude, just do your thing”  I tried it again.  I was shit again.  “Just use your own accent Ralphie” said Fincher, “Just do what you do“.    He was so kind and supportive.  I was in pieces. It was excruciating.

Sometimes I think that eternity blinks paying no due respect to logic

I’ve thought about this moment many times, and I don’t know why I didn’t seize it.  His dream must have seemed so close that he could scarcely fail to grasp it.  He could not know that it was already behind him…wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald…The Great Gatsby’s final paragraph.

I didn’t get the job.  Kevin Spacey did.  He smashed it.  He took a few jobs off me that year.  It was his year.  And the following year certainly was too.  We ended 1994 with one BBC job in Italy and nothing in Hollywood, broke.  We decided to move back to England, but not before I’d written a movie called New Year’s Day which would eventually get made in 1999 (see My Pop Life #75) and which is about – ouch – The Importance Of Disappointment.

..Give me your hand we are part of this plan we can force all this chaos to rhyme…

At some point during the post-production for Seven or Se7en as it was then written, David and Donya separated.  This was painful for everyone, and Jenny and I attempted our usual even-handed response to these painful events and stayed in touch with both parties.  David didn’t like that, or perhaps Donya used us against him in an argument.  In any event I have hardly seen him since 1995.   No bad feeling, just the end of an era.

Donya’s photograph of my wife Jenny Jules, 1994

It was an incredible opportunity in retrospect.  If I’d been cast in that role, it would certainly have changed my career.  I absolutely under-anticipated the stress of that meeting, thinking in my foolishness that David holding the door open would be perhaps enough to swing it for me.   It was a harsh lesson.   Many times I have played it over in my mind, re-entered the room, better prepared, psyched-up, played the scene properly like I’d planned it.  (Spacey played it exactly as I’d rehearsed it in the finished movie).   But I didn’t get it.  Even today, writing this, it bites me.  It was a gift horse and I gave it a thorough dental examination.   Oh well.  I’m still here.  Some things are just not meant to be.  No regrets.  Learning To Be.

Like all hinge moments one cannot eventually regret the way it went.  If I’d been cast in Seven we would have stayed in LA.  Or at least I would.  First and biggest problem.  We wouldn’t have bought a house in Brighton.  Tom, Millie and Lucy wouldn’t have moved down.   Scarlett and Tom wouldn’t have met.  Skye wouldn’t have been born.  I wouldn’t have played in The Brighton Beach Boys.  And on and on.  You cannot unmake a moment, even in your wishes.  And thus, once again, writing out one of my haunted moments in a blog post has allowed to me to understand the wound and clarify the misty darkness which surrounds it a little bit more.   And it becomes not a defeat but just another chapter in My Pop Life.

Look in the eyes of the water that falls
Hiding behind every flower and rock
Why do we dance on the wheel and forget
Life is a child that will never regret
Learning to be, be, be
Stepping away, I get closer each day
I’ve been looking for love to find me
Digging away, I will search I will pray
I’ve been waiting for truth to blind me

Learning To Be :

and Rainbow’s End – it’s not a great quality video, but it’s all there is :

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